WASHINGTON — US Vice President Joe Biden apologized to President Barack Obama in the Oval Office for remarks which forced his boss into an early endorsement of same-sex marriage, sources said Thursday.
In a rare glimpse inside the relationship between the president and his understudy, sources familiar with the conversation said Biden said sorry on Wednesday, before Obama became the first president to openly back gay wedlock.
Biden, who has a history of straying from political messages, unleashed a media firestorm by saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.
That put him ahead of the president on the sensitive social issue dear to his liberal base, as until Wednesday, Obama’s position was that he was “evolving” on whether gay marriage should be lawful, after personal reflection.
In the resulting flap, which saw White House spokesman Jay Carney take a fearful grilling, officials decided that Obama had no choice but to give a public endorsement of gay marriage, as he did on Wednesday.
“I’ve just concluded, for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama said in an historic interview with ABC News.
Officials said privately that Obama had always intended to back gay marriage, but intended to do so at an advantageous political moment before his nominating convention in September.
Biden then appears to have committed the cardinal sin of a US vice president — overshadowing his boss.
“The president has been the leader on this issue from day one and the Vice President never intended to distract from that,” Biden’s spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in a statement.
Her comments followed a flurry of stories quoting anonymous administration officials as saying they were irritated with Biden’s comments, which forced Obama into making his statement early.
Obama said in the ABC News interview that Biden “probably got out a little bit over his skis, but out of generosity of spirit.”
“I think Joe is an extremely generous loving person. And I think he was responding honestly in terms of how he felt.”
“Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way? … Sure. But all’s well that ends well.”
The unequal relationship between the President of the United States and his vice president is always sensitive and sometimes strained, no matter which party is in power.
That is partly to do with the fact that the vice president has no power and his constitutional duties are confined to presiding over the Senate or succeeding the president in the event of his death.
In practice, that means the vice president is dependent on his boss for influence and assignments, and must be careful to avoid overshadowing him.
The voluble Biden and the cerebral Obama have always made a odd political couple, but the vice president has strengths that his boss does not — for instance, an easy rapport with white, blue collar voters in swing states.
Obama has also entrusted Biden with some tough assignments, and he has won the president’s respect for managing the US withdrawal from Iraq and for overseeing an $800 billion economic stimulus program.
Biden, 69, is also personally popular in the West Wing, though his loose lips occasionally appear to irk Obama’s advisors in a White House which is famously disciplined and loathe to air its dirty linen in public.
The Obama campaign Thursday tried to make political hay from the gay marriage issue with a new Internet ad condemning his Republican foe Mitt Romney for wanting to turn “backwards on equality.”
The spot featured a clip of former Republican president George W. Bush saying that gay couples should not be denied the rights of civil partnerships, in an effort to position Romney out of the mainstream on the issue.
Senior Obama aides say they are unsure how the gay marriage decision will play politically.
Some analysts believe that Obama will reap benefits by firing up his liberal base and energize gay and lesbian fundraisers by speaking out on an issue which polls show is being accepted by more and more Americans.
But others feel he could pay a price with more conservative and religious voters in key battleground states like Ohio and North Carolina that he hopes to capture en route to winning a second White House term in November.
Romney said on Fox News that his “preference” was to “encourage the marriage of a man and a woman and (to) continue to define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.”