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What needed to be done

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In retrospect, this should have been the moment when I figured out that Joe Biden might be a better president than I would have expected:

A decade ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden shocked the political world and preempted his boss by suddenly declaring his support for gay marriage on national television. But not everyone was surprised.

A small group had attended a private fundraiser with Biden weeks earlier in Los Angeles, where he disclosed not only his approval but his firm conclusion about a positive future for same-sex marriage.

He predicted, “Things are changing so rapidly, it’s going to become a political liability in the near term for someone to say, ‘I oppose gay marriage.’”

“Mark my words. And my job — our job — is to keep this momentum rolling to the inevitable.”

The day that Biden envisioned may have arrived. He plans on Tuesday to sign legislation, passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to protect gay unions — even if the Supreme Court should revisit its ruling supporting a nationwide right of same-sex couples to marry.

Biden’s signature will burnish his legacy as a champion of equality at a time when the LGBTQ community is anxious to safeguard legal changes from a backlash on the right that has used incendiary rhetoric, particularly against transgender people.

For those of us who lived through the 90s, pragmatism on the part of prominent Democrats was inherently suspect because it was generally used to justify feints to the right, sometimes plausibly rooted in public opinion but other times much more rooted in elite prejudices. For Biden, though, having a sense of public opinion isn’t just a pretext for moving to the right — sometimes it means sensing that the public is with you and going to be more with you and acting accordingly. Obama’s instincts were generally pretty good, but this was a case where he was clearly behind the curve on a very important issue and Biden insisted on forcing a course correction.

Biden’s value as a president was going to be heavily context dependent — but, then, if LBJ had magically become president in 1952 or 1992 nobody would remember him as a great liberal on domestic policy either.

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