The Perfect Enemy | Joe Biden, gay icon
December 6, 2022
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Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.  

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President JOE BIDEN, on the cusp of his 80th birthday, can sometimes sound like a throwback with his colloquialisms, dad jokes and wistful reminiscences about the good old days in the Senate when lawmakers actually liked each other.

But on the issue of gay rights, Biden has been ahead of the political curve for a decade now. And he’s about to become a central figure in the historic movement for the second time.

The Senate voted 62-37 earlier this week to move forward on the Respect for Marriage Act, clearing the legislation’s biggest remaining hurdle. That means that the legislation enshrining same-sex marriage as the law of the land could be on the president’s desk well before Christmas. “Love is love,” Biden tweeted after Tuesday’s vote.

When Biden signs the legislation into law, it will be a bookend to a personal evolution on the issue that began a decade ago for the devout Catholic. Responding to a question on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2012, the then-vice president said he supported same-sex marriage because it came down to the simple question: “Who do you love?”

The response, which put Biden out ahead of President BARACK OBAMA and the Democratic Party establishment, left the White House scrambling. Obama rushed to catch up, announcing his own support for same-sex marriage just three days later.

“I still remember where I was when that happened,” said RUFUS GIFFORD, the openly gay former ambassador to Denmark under Obama who is now chief of protocol at the State Department. “It’s hard to overstate the emotion associated with it, as someone who grew up never believing that the traditional definition of happiness that my parents had hoped for me to have would ever come to be.”

The NBC interview was a watershed for a politician who, in the Senate, voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and woman. By 2012, however, the politics around gay rights had shifted. And so did the president’s views. According to aides close to the president, Biden, a blue collar guy with a lifelong affinity for underdogs, saw the matter as one of basic human dignity.

After the interview, “he was immediately celebrated afterwards by folks in the LGBTQ community for his bravery and for coming out before Obama,” said SASHA ISSENBERG, whose book, “The Engagement,” details the 25-year fight for marriage equality. “He became a hero to liberals in a way he’d never been on any issue in his career. And the response he got emboldened him.”

Suddenly, Biden was ahead of most of his colleagues in also addressing transgender rights, as he did in speeches at the Human Rights Coalition’s annual dinners. And the LGBTQ community took note. In the run-up to the 2020 election, gay activist TIM GILL and his husband SCOTT MILLER (who Biden later appointed ambassador to Switzerland) were among the loudest voices urging Biden to run.

On his first day in office, the president signed an executive order combating discrimination across the federal government; days later, he rescinded a ban on transgender service members in the military. The White House also pointed to Biden’s State of the Union address in March, when he decried an “onslaught” of GOP-sponsored legislation in states targeting transgender youth, whom he addressed directly: “I’ll always have your back as your president, so you can be yourself and reach your God-given potential.”

Fourteen percent of Biden’s appointees identify as LGBTQ, the White House said, including many in front-facing roles. Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG is the country’s first openly gay Cabinet secretary. As press secretary, KARINE JEAN-PIERRE represents the administration every day at the briefing room podium. STUART DELERY, who became White House counsel in July, is the first openly gay person to serve in that role. And whenever Biden hosts or meets with heads of state, Gifford is the first one greeting them when their limousines pull up to the West Wing portico.

“It wasn’t that long ago that someone in my position couldn’t be openly gay, because you couldn’t get a security clearance,” he said.

“There are a lot of people in our community who have seen his record and are motivated by it and want to come work for him,” said GAUTAM RAGHAVAN, who, as deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, oversees hiring across the administration.

DEMETRE DASKALAKIS, a prominent gay doctor and infectious disease specialist, was appointed in August to serve as deputy coordinator of the administration’s monkeypox response. On his first day at the White House, Daskalakis recalled, Biden spoke to him and ROBERT FENTON, the top monkeypox coordinator, in surprisingly personal terms about the virus’ impact on the LGBTQ community. He urged them to ensure that gay Americans know their health and wellbeing was a top priority for the White House.

To Raghavan, Biden’s legacy on equality issues is well cemented. But a bill signing in the weeks ahead once the Respect for Marriage Act reaches his desk would punctuate a sea change in American life.

“To me, and I think to a lot of people like me, to see the president of the United States sign something like this, it is a very important symbolic affirmation of our relationships,” Raghavan said.

MESSAGE US — Are you NISHA BHAT, senior policy adviser for Medicare? We want to hear from you! And we’ll keep you anonymous. Email us at [email protected].

POTUS PUZZLER

This one’s from Allie. A wedding-related question in honor of NAOMI BIDEN’s nuptials Saturday — what year did the first wedding at the White House take place?

(Answer at the bottom.)

Cartoon of the Week

TGIF! It’s that time of the week where we feature a cartoon! This one’s by MICHAEL RAMIREZ. Our very own MATT WUERKER also publishes a selection of cartoons from all over the country. View the cartoon carousel here.

The Oval

WHITE (HOUSE) WEDDING: Trucks delivering rented items for Saturday’s White House wedding were parked in the South driveway Friday afternoon, but that glimpse through the portico doors is all the press will see of presidential granddaughter NAOMI BIDEN’s ceremony and reception.

The White House Correspondents Association had pushed for a small pool of journalists to cover “some portion” of the wedding, but its request was denied. “White House weddings have been covered by the press throughout history and the first family’s wish for privacy must be balanced against the public’s interest in an event occurring at the People’s House with the President as a participant,” the organization said in a statement.

At Friday’s press briefing, Jean-Pierre said Naomi Biden and PETER NEAL, her fiancé, wanted the wedding closed to the press. “We are respecting their wishes,” she said, noting that the White House would put out photos from the 11 a.m. ceremony and a statement from the president afterward.

Most staffers, however, will be at Union Station on Saturday night for another administration wedding, as ROB FLAHERTY, the White House director of digital strategy, marries CARLA FRANK, deputy director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Chief of staff RON KLAIN, deputy chief of staff JEN O’MALLEY DILLON and senior adviser ANITA DUNN are expected to attend.

‘VERY DISTURBED’: Rep. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-Mich.) said Friday she was “stunned” by the news that the Biden administration supports legal immunity for the Saudi Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN regarding the 2018 murder of journalist JAMAL KHASHOGGI.

“I’m going to be very blunt. I was stunned when I read it … and I already was texting my staff trying to understand what the issues were,” she said on “CNN This Morning.” “I think it’s very complicated, but I am very disturbed by some of the things.”

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This WaPo opinion piece by JENNIFER RUBIN about how Democrats can mobilize young voters. One suggestion? “The elevation of a new raft of representatives not yet widely known by the average American would certainly communicate that the party is amenable to fresh blood and fresh ideas. The party often stresses the need for government that ‘looks like America’; that should include more than senior citizens.”

Klain tweeted out the piece Friday morning.

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This article by CNBC’s SPENCER KIMBALL about the concerning spikes of the respiratory syncytial virus and flu in children: “The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics warned Biden and Health Secretary XAVIER BECERRA in a letter this week that ‘unprecedented levels’ of RSV combined with increasing flu circulation are pushing some hospitals to the breaking point,” according to the piece. “Infants 6 months and younger are getting hospitalized with RSV at more than seven times the rate observed before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2018.”

THE BUREAUCRATS

HERE COMES THE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Attorney General MERRICK GARLAND appointed JACK SMITH, a chief of the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section, to serve as a special prosecutor to oversee criminal investigations related to former President DONALD TRUMP. Asked about it at the briefing Friday, Jean-Pierre said that “the president was not aware, we were not aware, we were not given advance notice.” Our JOSH GERSTEIN and KYLE CHENEY have more details.

UNEXPECTED MEET UPS: U.S. Trade Representative KATHERINE TAI had an unexpected face-to-face meeting with China’s Commerce Minister WANG WENTAO Friday, as the two attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit in Thailand, our DOUG PALMER reports for Pro subscribers.

Agenda Setting

PAGING SCOTUS: The Biden administration on Friday called on the Supreme Court to allow it to move ahead with its student loan forgiveness program, which was put on pause by various legal challenges, our MICHAEL STRATFORD reports for Pro subscribers. Solicitor General ELIZABETH PRELOGAR said in a court filing that the latest appeal’s court decision blocking the program “leaves millions of economically vulnerable borrowers in limbo, uncertain about the size of their debt and unable to make financial decisions with an accurate understanding of their future repayment obligations.”

UNDER PRESSURE: With global climate talks still underway, U.S. climate envoy JOHN KERRY is under increasing pressure to consider a proposal that would make the U.S. and other industrialized nations pay the world’s most vulnerable countries for irreversible climate damage they have already suffered, our ZACK COLMAN, KARL MATHIESEN and SARA SCHONHARDT report.

Kerry tested positive for Covid-19 at the climate summit and is self-isolating, according to the State Department. Colman has more on that here.

What We’re Reading

Justice Dept. Is Said to Investigate Ticketmaster’s Parent Company (NYT’s David McCabe and Ben Sisario)

Biden granddaughter’s wedding offers youthful spin for president turning 80 (CNN’s Kate Bennett)

US moves to shield Saudi crown prince in journalist killing (AP’s Ellen Knickmeyer and Matthew Lee)

The Oppo Book

Before he became a senior policy adviser at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ROBBIE GOLDSTEIN ran for Congress in 2020 to represent Massachusetts’ 8th district.

While he didn’t win the election, Goldstein used his medical background to his advantage in the campaign, drumming up virtual get-out-the-vote efforts before any lockdowns went into effect.

“”I’m an infectious disease doctor, that is my life,” he said on “The Big W” podcast. “In the second week of January, I remember turning to my campaign manager at the time and saying, ‘This is going to be bad.’”

“We had our Zoom account before Covid,” he joked.

POTUS PUZZLER ANSWER

The first White House wedding occurred on March 29, 1812, when LUCY PAYNE WASHINGTON, sister of first lady DOLLEY MADISON and sister-in-law to President JAMES MADISON, married THOMAS TODD, according to the White House Historical Association.

MEA CULPA: In Thursday’s edition, we misspelled actor KIEFER SUTHERLAND’s name in our trivia answer. We’re sorry about the error, and especially sorry to his Dad, DONALD.

AND, A CALL OUT — Do you think you have a harder one? Send us your best one about the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.

Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.