The account Jo Becker gives of the Obama administration’s response to the issue of marriage equality is one of the few parts of the book that has not been demolished since it was published. Since her account did not square with my own memory, I asked David Plouffe to address some of the claims in the book and he was eager to do so. Plouffe ran Obama’s 2008 campaign and during the time in question was Senior Adviser To The President.
Below is a Q and A I had with Plouffe today on the events Becker purports to report. My questions are in italics. Plouffe’s answers follow:
AS: Becker’s book argues that the president’s position seemed stalled on marriage equality in 2011 and 2012 and that he likely did not intend to evolve any further on marriage before his second term. Do you agree?
DP: Absolutely not. The President made a decision that he was ready to “fully evolve” and announce his support for marriage equality. As he put it, “If I get asked if I was still a state legislator in Illinois would I vote to recognize same sex marriages as New York State did, the answer will be yes.” So the only question was when and how to announce in 2012 he would be the first President to support marriage equality, not whether to.
AS: What were the major and minor influences that caused the president to embrace marriage equality when he did?
DP: His evolution was not contrived as some suggest, but real. He spoke powerfully to some of his reasons in the Robin Roberts interview, but also the decision not to defend DOMA was instrumental, as well as the increasing number of states that were recognizing marriage. However, his family and friends and the discussions they had were likely the single greatest influence. His ultimate support for marriage equality was arrived at in a way that while public, was not too dissimilar to the journey many of us in the country took. Also, the President believed his support for marriage equality could change the opinions of some in his electoral coalition – witness the striking change in support in the African-American community which was illustrated in the Maryland ballot initiative results in 2012.
Given the Democratic convention and the Debates, where this issue was sure to come up, and that he had personally decided to support marriage equality, the plan was to make sure the announcement was made by June.
AS: Did Biden force your hand on substance? Or just the timing? What was the president’s personal response to Biden’s public statement?
DP: Not even the timing really. We were planning to do so within a week or two. So it might have sped it up by a matter of days, if that. He was very calm about it. He understood that this would be a historic moment and years from now, if not months (which turned out to be the case for most) all that mattered would be the words he spoke, not the process to get there. I will confess to being exercised because this was a historic moment and I wanted that to be the focus, not why we were doing it or how the timing was forced. He was right, I was wrong.
AS: David Brooks argues today that judging from Becker’s book, this was a decision dominated by elite political strategists. Is that your recollection?
DP: Not all all.
DP: Once he made the decisions, it was a settled debate. All we did was help think thru the timing and some of the questions that would arise from his statement. I understand the Becker book may give people that sense. It is decidedly inaccurate. I sat beside him from his decision not to defend DOMA in early 2011 to his embrace of marriage equality on May 9, 2012. It was his call. And from my unique perch at the time, I can assure you there were no guarantees this would not cost us votes in some of the battleground states. It was one of my favorite days in the whole Obama experience. Doing something historic and right that had risk associated with it – I’m certain that’s how history will capture it, not some of the BS out there now.
AS: Was the president’s reluctance to embrace a federal right to marry a function of his caution or of his understanding that civil marriage has been a state issue in the US?
DP: The latter, exactly. Though I think he believes that ultimately the Courts and the states will move almost universally in the right direction and we certainly have seen progress on both fronts since his announcement. There really hasn’t been an issue at least in modern times that has seen this rapid support growth, and given support levels for marriage equality across the ideological spectrum of those under 35, the path is clear.
AS: Over the first term, the administration had successively endorsed the notion of heightened scrutiny for gay rights cases, had bowed out of defending DOMA in the courts and had ended DADT. How did these events change the debate about marriage equality within the administration? Or were they irrelevant?
DP: I believe that while you had to look at each individually and make decisions based on the unique core facts at hand – and any administration must – there is no doubt that each was a barrier that was overcome and the result of each pointed in the same direction towards progress. Surely some will disagree with this this, but I think the gradual progression on the issues you mention in the first three years leading up to his marriage equality statement helped ultimately build support broadly for the equality case. Some may get frustrated by this, but the President has always had a very good sense of timing, even when it seems slow or not how they would do it on The West Wing TV show. I think in this case, we will look back and understand that each chapter unfolding as it did was the right path for the overall cause.
AS: Was there a sell-by date by which time the administration believed it had to endorse marriage equality before the election?
DP: Yes – our internal clock was June. There was platform language for the convention that had to be agreed to and the debates looming and he would start doing a lot of local interviews as well as national. It would be impossible to imagine not getting the question – directly (Are you still evolving?) or hypothetically (would you vote for it in the Illinois legislature?) We were actively working thru dates and options in the very near term when the VP made his statements on MTP.
When you read the book, you get the impression that Chad Griffin did almost all of this himself. Think about that claim for a moment. And what it says about his vision of the marriage equality movement and its hundreds of thousands of participants, gay and straight, over the last two and a half decades.