Jacob Sullum
"I favor legalizing same-sex marriages," Barack Obama told a gay newspaper while seeking his first term as an Illinois state senator in 1996, "and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

When Obama ran for re-election in 1998, he took the National Political Awareness Test, which among other things asked, "Do you believe that the Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages?" His response: "Undecided."

It took Obama only two years to learn the political value of reticence regarding touchy social issues -- a concept that evidently still eludes Vice President Joe Biden, whose unguarded comments about gay marriage on Sunday called unwelcome attention to his boss's studied ambiguity on the subject. Yet a close look at Obama's statements over the years suggests his spokesman is telling the truth when he says Biden's position is essentially the same as the president's.

"I am 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," Biden said on "Meet the Press." "And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."

Obama does -- or at least, he is aware that many voters do, which is why he has been careful to avoid an explicit endorsement of "gay marriage" as such, to the dismay of some supporters. Instead, he says homosexual and heterosexual couples should be treated equally under the law.

"The government has to treat all citizens equally," Obama said during a 2007 presidential debate. "I am a strong supporter not of a weak version of civil unions, but of a strong version, in which the rights that are conferred at the federal level to persons who are part of the same-sex union are compatible. When it comes to federal rights, the over 1,100 rights that right now are not being given to same-sex couples, I think that's unacceptable."

That position helps explain Obama's 2011 decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the statute that bars the federal government from recognizing state-licensed same-sex marriages. Announcing that decision in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration had concluded that legal classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to "heightened scrutiny" under the equal protection guarantee implicit in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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