Obama's Ambivalence Chafes Gay Marriage Supporters

In a press conference this past week, President Barack Obama said that gays and lesbians should be afforded equal rights like every other American. He stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage, however, frustrating some of his supporters in the gay community. For more, guest host Susan Stamberg talks with New York Times Los Angeles Bureau Chief Adam Nagourney.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. Good morning.

The recent decision by New York's state legislature to legalize same-sex marriage is being viewed by many as a tipping point, an important milestone in the gay rights movement. But this attention to the issue of gay marriage is putting President Barack Obama in the hot seat. Here's the president speaking during a news conference in December 2010.

President BARACK OBAMA: With respect to this issue of whether gays and lesbians should be able to get married, I've spoken about this recently. As I said, you know, my feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

STAMBERG: This past week, Mr. Obama spoke at a White House reception held in honor of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, pride month.

OBAMA: So, we've got a lot of work to do, not only on ending discrimination; we've got a lot of work to do to live up to the ideals on which we were founded and to preserve the American dream in our time for everybody, whether they're gay or straight or lesbian or transgender.

STAMBERG: What is perceived as Mr. Obama's ambiguity on same-sex marriage is frustrating some of his supporters on the left. So, we begin this hour by examining the relationship between the Obama administration and gay rights activists. Adam Nagourney is our guest. A long-time political reporter, he's Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times and he is co-author of "Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America." He joins us from his office in California. Adam Nagourney, welcome.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Hey, thanks for having me.

STAMBERG: Do you think that President Obama's personal evolution is genuine or is it politically expedient? 'Cause after all same-sex marriage is politically untenable in many parts of this country.

NAGOURNEY: Yeah, I think - I mean, just sort of knowing President Obama and following him over the years - and I don't know what's inside his heart. I just find it difficult to believe that he really opposes gay marriage or that it's that big an issue to him. And in fact when he ran for Senate he signed some sort of application - not application but some sort of questionnaire - in which he said he supported gay marriage. Here's the thing though: I do not think that he could have gotten elected president in 2008 as a proponent of gay marriage. It just wasn't going to happen. And my guess is - you know, I don't know - but my guess is that he made a pugle(ph) calculation to play down that issue in order to get elected. And, you know, purists could argue that that was a bad thing to do. Pragmatic people would say, listen, you got to get into office to get stuff done, so he did it. Whatever. My guess is that's what he's done.

STAMBERG: I wonder how much is generational. He's sort of on the edge of being part of a generation that does not see all this as much of a big deal.

NAGOURNEY: If you look at polling, I think the cutoff age is 45 or 40. You begin to see a real difference in public perceptions of gay marriage, and younger people are - by the way, this crosses party lines too - either they support gay marriage or they just don't care for a whole lot of reasons. I mean, I just think culturally the world's changing. The fact that so many gay people came out in the '80s and '90s and the 2000s means that it's more sort of acceptable. What's been going on on television is a huge deal, that so many shows have openly gay characters. So, I think that's going on. And he is - you're right, Susan - he is right on the cusp, but still that said, he came out of a very sort of liberal background in Chicago and, you know, I assume there were plenty of gay people in this life. And that's where my sort of supposition or inclination is that this is probably not an issue that he really he ever had much of a problem with, frankly.

STAMBERG: In the past and, again, at this news conference he held this past week, he characterized same-sex marriage as a state's rights issue. Here's a bit of what he said:

OBAMA: What you saw was the people of New York having a debate, talking through these issues. It was contentious, it was emotional, but ultimately they made a decision to recognize civil marriages. And I think that's exactly how things should work.

STAMBERG: So, that's President Obama at a news conference just last week. Adam Nagourney, why do you think he takes that position and what is the response to it from gay activists?

NAGOURNEY: You know, gay activists really slammed him on that position. I think it really distressed them because it seemed to be a real step back from the evolution, evolving position that the White House had been suggesting is where the president is. It's a difficult argument to make because, you know, obviously, if you accept what sounded like a state's rights argument then you get into a situation of, of course, that was the same way that many states banned marriages between blacks and whites. And Barack Obama parents were also black and white, so I'm not sure that's a place where he wants to be. And I'm not sure that's a place where he meant to end up as he's trying to sort of mull his way through this. And my guess again is at the end of the day he's going to come out in some form for gay marriage.

STAMBERG: The business about marriage equality is that really for the gay rights activists at the top of their list in general or is it symbolic for the overall issue of gay rights?

NAGOURNEY: Yeah, that's a really good question. You know, I wrote a book about the gay political movement going back to Stonewall and when this movement first began, yeah, there were some people who supported and wanted gay marriage. But for a lot of people that was not a big issue. There were much other issues that were considered much bigger: police harassment, sodomy laws. And there are in fact a lot of people in the gay community who would say we don't care about marriage, it's a straight convention. We don't need it; we don't want it. I think, though, that very recently this issue's become a surrogate. In other words, people who might normally not care about it, it's become a big deal, and I think that it's become the biggest deal of the gay rights movement now because it's sort of become representative of gay people trying to get accepted by society. And so I do think it's a huge deal. And that's why, for example, that's why Andrew Cuomo got so much credit in New York for pushing it through. I think it's become bigger than it ever was, again, because it's become symbolic sort of the larger movement.

STAMBERG: Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times. Thanks very much, Adam.

NAGOURNEY: OK. Thank you, Susan.

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