There are a couple of lessons to be learned from President Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage.
The first is in Obama’s handling of the issue once Vice President Joe Biden got ahead of the president’s timetable for making the announcement. The other is from Biden’s lapse in judgment in getting in front of his boss on the issue.
Whether you agree with the president’s position, his decision not to equivocate once Biden outed his boss on the matter was a profile in courage.
Obama could have continued to avoid the subject until later in the campaign or after the election. Instead he chose to come clean. He could have erupted in rage and taken Biden to the woodshed for putting Obama in a tough position. According to press reports, the president was gracious both publicly and personally with Biden, who did have the good sense to go to his boss, fall on his sword and apologize for blowing up their strategy.
One of the cardinal rules of business is that you always work to make your boss look good publicly, even if privately you disagree. Another major rule is to never let your boss be taken by surprise.
In an interview on Sunday, Biden broke both rules.
He said he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Considering that Obama previously said his views on the subject were “evolving,” it made the vice president, a subordinate, appear to take a principled stand while the president, his superior, seemed to be vacillating.
Politically, the president was left to decide whether to try to control the situation by neither supporting nor condemning Biden’s comments – which many pundits predicted he would do – or he could take a stand.
Given his earlier hints that he likely would come to support gay marriage as his views shifted, Obama was left with little real choice. Besides, if he disagreed with the vice president publicly, that would have set off a firestorm of speculation about whether there was tension between the two men and/or if Biden might get tossed off the presidential ticket.
Hours before President Obama met with ABC News’ Robin Roberts and declared his support for same-sex marriage Biden went to the Oval Office and apologized for putting his boss on the spot.
The president’s response showed Obama at his best: thoughtful, gracious, mildly chastising and forgiving.
In the interview with Roberts, Obama said Biden had gotten “a little bit over his skis” but was motivated “out of generosity of spirit.” The New York Times reported that several officials said Obama harbored no ill will toward the vice president, even though senior advisers in the White House and within the president’s reelection campaign were feeling a bit less charitable.
In essence, Obama was the boss we all hope we get but fear we don’t deserve. He didn’t berate the vice president publicly for his mistake or for showing poor judgment. He kept his eye on the long-term prize, reelection, and maintained a unified front with Biden. He stepped up and took a stand, a controversial one at that, gambling that by taking the flak now the issue would die down or be replaced by more bread-and-butter issues that are easier to address – at least rhetorically – as he got closer to Election Day.
In that moment, Obama delivered a textbook example of leadership.
Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.