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Same-sex marriage an awkward issue for Obama

Same-sex couple Jeff Tabaco, left, and Thom Watson kiss as they hold paperwork for a marriage license Aug. 12, 2010, in San Francisco.
Same-sex couple Jeff Tabaco, left, and Thom Watson kiss as they hold paperwork for a marriage license Aug. 12, 2010, in San Francisco. Getty Images

Updated 3:56 p.m. Eastern Time

(CBS News) Over the past two days, two members of President Obama's administration have - more or less - come out in favor of same-sex marriage.

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden statedthat he is "absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."

And on Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said flatly that he believes same-sex marriage should be legal. Asked on MSNBC why he had never said so publicly before this morning, Duncan replied, "I don't know if I've ever been asked."

The president, meanwhile, has been asked plenty of times while in office - and he has always stopped short of supporting same-sex marriage. (He offered " unequivocal" support for same-sex marriage in 1996, when he was an Illinois State Senate candidate, but later changed his position.) Mr. Obama, who supports civil unions, says he is "evolving" on the issue

"I struggle with this," he said in the wake of the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. "I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions. And they are extraordinary people. And this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about."

In an election year, his struggle with the issue is not just a personal one. That was illustrated in what happened after Biden's comments on Sunday: The vice president's office insisted that Biden's comments did not reflect an endorsement of same-sex marriage, arguing they matched the president's position. The attempt to walk back Biden's remarks angered gay rights groups, who see the administration as woefully behind the times - and the Democratic base - on the issue.

There's polling to back up that perception: Gallup found last year that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, the sort of finding that has gay rights activists imploring the president to "evolve already."

But Mr. Obama's team is wary of a high-profile embrace of same-sex marriage. They worry it could drive turnout among Republicans in November - in the 2004 election, the Bush reelection team used referenda on the issue to bring voters to the polls. Spotlighting same-sex marriage could also suggest to voters that Mr. Obama is focused on social issues instead of the struggling economy, the issue voters overwhelmingly cite as their top concern. It's notable that while the president has released a statement opposing a controversial North Carolina amendment Constitutionally defining marriage as between one man and one woman, he declined to mention it when he visited the state last month.

Though gay rights activists have been pushing for support for same-sex marriage to be included in this year's Democratic Party platform, few expect Mr. Obama to come out in favor of same-sex marriage before November. They hope, however, that the country's first African-American president will at the very least rally behind what they see as the defining civil rights cause of the era in his second term, when he doesn't have to worry about reelection. And they are taking advantage of the headlines generated by Biden and Duncan's comments to increase the pressure.

"Arne Duncan joins Joe Biden now in embracing civil marriage for committed gay and lesbian couples. Duncan speaking out is particularly important given his role as the nation's top education official," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in a statement Monday. "In supporting marriage equality, he communicates to all students that they deserve an equal shot at the American dream of love, family and equality. There's no doubt in my mind that the president shares these values and that's why it's time for him to speak out in favor of marriage equality as well."

The Obama reelection team, meanwhile, is playing defense. During a conference call with reporters on Monday morning, Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod again insisted that Biden had not broken with the president. He said Mr. Obama has shown his support for gay rights throughout his term, pointing to the decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act outlawing federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Axelrod also argued that "there's a very clear distinction" between Mr. Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on the issue.

"[T]here couldn't be a starker contrast on this issue than with Governor Romney who has funded efforts to roll back marriage laws in California and other places, who believes that we need a constitutional amendment banning the right of gay couples to marry, and would take us backward, not forward," he said.

Asked about Biden's comments on Monday, Romney told a Fox affiliate in Ohio that "[m]y view is that marriage is between a man and a woman. That's a position I've had for some time and I don't intend to make any adjustments at this point...or ever, by the way."

Same-sex marriage measure set for vote in North Carolina

Below, check out White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defending the administration position to skeptical reporters on Monday:

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