NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
On Sunday's "Meet the Press," Vice President Joe Biden appeared to go off script and made news when he said he was absolutely comfortable with gay marriage. The next day, in response to the question now in the air, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed same-sex marriage as well. By yesterday, President Obama told ABC News that after months of reflection, he's concluded that same sex marriage ought to be legal. While the Supreme Court may intervene, the decision right now is up to each individual state, and the president endorsed that too.
So what's changed? Give us a call. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We got this email from Emily(ph) in Cleveland: President Obama's comments really changed only one main thing: He has given his support to many lesbian, gay and bisexual people, which is huge, in my opinion.
It's nice to know that even though I am a minority that many people would like to ignore, my president stands with me, my partner and our future children on this issue. However, everything else is the same in that my marriage is not recognized by my state or country. And I still do not have the basic rights that are given to heterosexual couples. His comments are a huge step forward, but we still have a long walk ahead.
And we're also going to be reading comments from various newspaper editorials and op-ed columns. This was in The New York Times today written by Charles Blow, who says, today, we are an inch taller as a nation. Today, we are a mile closer to the ideals described in the Declaration of Independence. Today, we have been transported light years beyond where many ever thought we would ever be. History will remember this president in this moment. He stood up for personal liberty and publicly affirmed what should have needed no affirmation: that in a just society the rights of some must be the rights of all, that we do not condemn those who love differently, that we are all made greater when we are all treated equally. There is no wrong time, he writes, to do the right thing.
The National Review had a different view, calling some of the president's statements hypocrisy. He is still being neither honest nor consistent. His dishonesty is not merely a matter of pretending that he has truly changed his mind about marriage, rather than about the politics of marriage. His claim that he believes states should decide marriage policy is also (unintelligible) to credit. One of the purposes of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was to block this scenario: A same-sex couple that resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex unions - marriages, goes to a state that does so recognize them, gets married there, returns home, sues in federal court to have the home state recognize the marriage and prevails.
Obama has long favored the repeal of the act. He does not truly want states to be able to continue to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Many people who support same-sex marriage, the National Review editorial continues, sincerely believe they are merely expanding an institution to a class of people who have also been excluded from it rather than redefining it. But this view is simply mistaken. We will not make our society more civilized by detaching one of our central institutions from its civilized task. Let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Troy(ph). Troy with us from Iowa City.
TROY: I think President Obama committed political suicide by announcing this. I see that - I don't think the American people really want to see an all-gay military. You know, when they think about that, they think of, well, great. I send my child to the military, and they become a homosexual getting sodomized. I don't think the American people are willing (unintelligible).
CONAN: Well, obviously, you then oppose the president's previous policy of abandoning "don't ask, don't tell."
TROY: Yes. I think it is, you know, when the religious groups come along, they'll just say, well, we like being, you know, being a Democrat, but this just goes over the line. I will probably not show up to vote or will vote Republican because he crossed the line.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Troy.
TROY: Thank you.
CONAN: This is from the Charlotte Observer: So what changes now? The newspaper writes: Pragmatically, little. The greater value is symbolic. Most every movement toward change eventually needs a leader's endorsement to propel it forward. Until Wednesday, Obama seemed to be calculating the votes he might lose on same-sex marriage instead of the hearts he might speak to.
It's an unfortunate pattern of his presidency. Then-candidate Obama campaigned in 2008 on breaking the mold of cynical politics, but he too often has cowed from difficult political choices as president, ducking out the back door when the moment was banging on the front. On Wednesday, finally, he did what leaders should do: say when they think something is right or wrong. We welcome his public embrace of principle on same-sex marriage, but it shouldn't have been nearly this hard.
Let's go next - this is Ryan. Ryan with us from Columbus.
RYAN: Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good. Thanks. How's it - what's changed?
RYAN: Well, I think it's interesting. I happen to be running for the state legislature in Ohio, and I was out campaigning last night and talking with people. They told me that their biggest concerns are unemployment, lack of jobs, and health care and then same-sex marriage. And they went on to say that they would not vote for me as a candidate if I supported same-sex marriage, regardless of my views on how I might be able to help them with health care or getting back to work. And so I was very interested in what other folks' viewpoints might be on that. But also, just to say that what seems to have changed is that we're now back into this mode where we are looking at cultural wedge issues as opposed to the economic concerns that actually affect people on a day-to-day basis.
CONAN: And is your opponent in the race on the other side of the issue?
CONAN: And how do you think that's going to change things that the president has injected this back into the conversation?
RYAN: Well, I think it's definitely going to become an issue again, even though Ohio actually has a constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage.
CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
RYAN: Thank you, Neal
CONAN: This is from a piece in the Daily Caller by Pat McMahon: The issue, he writes, is not same-sex marriage. The issue is that the president of the United States is playing petty politics. Barack Obama supported gay marriage in 1996, opposed it in 2004, opposed it in 2008, and now supports it in 2012. Mitt Romney has long been accused of being a flip-flopper on many issues and not having core beliefs, but what exactly does this show about President Obama? Well, for one, it shows he is one hell of a political acrobat. More importantly, it shows us he will do or say anything to win re-election. Same-sex marriage has fervent supporters and fervent detractors, all from different backgrounds and walks of life. What should alarm both supporters and detractors of gay marriage, is the fact that Barack Obama supported it, opposed it, and now supports it again. Where will the winds take him next?
Pat McMahon, the Daily Caller's deputy director of communications. That reference to 1996, a form that was filled out by then-candidate Obama who said he favored same-sex marriage. The Obama campaign and the White House later said someone else filled out that form, and it was an incorrect statement of the president's position.
This is from Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast: The single most important position here is not Obama's, but Romney's, specifically his continuing opposition to civil unions. That one is mystifying to me. In many polls, something north of 60 percent of Americans back civil unions. George W. Bush backed civil unions in 2004. It's yesterday's news. Outside of right-wing circles, it's not controversial. Yet Romney happily slid his leg into this manacle, slammed down the padlock and threw the key into the river. He's stuck with this one. He's stuck with another one too. He signed a pledge promising he would pursue a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, nationally. Now it may be that he doesn't really believe that. That doesn't matter. He signed it. He's stuck with that one too.
Obama, in contrast, can say, hey, look, I took a personal position. I'm not trying to make Alabama or Oklahoma do anything they don't want to do. But you, sir, would take away already-won rights away from gay couples whose unions are now recognized in a number of states. Then he drops this bomb: My position is no different from Dick Cheney's. Is he outside the mainstream? Then after that, he can say something like: Governor, your own father bravely broke from his party on a great civil rights matter. Why can't you?
Let's see, we go next to - this is Maya. And Maya is another caller from Ohio, this time from Dayton.
MAYA: Yes. Yes, hello. I just wanted to say, first, I'm so glad that Barack Obama has the nerve and the guts to support same-sex marriage. I don't know what that means in the future for same-sex couples. But how dare anyone - if you don't agree with same-sex marriage, you have the right to not agree. But just like with miscegenation, you know, decades ago, you couldn't marry someone that's not your race because it was - someone else didn't agree with it. You don't have to agree with it, but they have the right to get married. The end.
And you can't put religion into it and say, well, it's unnatural. Well, guess what, if I don't believe in God, I can still get married. If I believe in, you know, if I'm Jewish, I can still get married. If I'm Catholic, I can get married. If I have no - if I'm a devil worshipper, I can get married. But if I'm gay, I can't? You can't put religion into that. And personal belief has nothing to do with right. You don't have to agree, but you have the right to do as you so choose.
CONAN: And what changed yesterday because of the president's statement?
MAYA: Well, I think - I'm hoping that he'll get more support from people who agree with what I'm saying, is basically you have the right to do what you so choose. I also hope that it did not hurt him in the conservative black community. I'm hoping that there are so many other issues that are more important that they will - people will not change their views or their vote, because of this issue. I'm not sure. I'm hoping that it won't hurt him, but I'm sure that more people will think that he's more of a standup guy and will - even if they don't agree with this situation, they will find it, you know, hopeful that he's saying, OK, I agree with this, and I have no right to not agree with it. So I'm hoping it helps.
CONAN: Maya, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MAYA: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with you about what's changed since President Obama's statement on same-sex marriages yesterday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. This email from Jason in Vancouver, Washington. Fundamentally, nothing has changed for either the LGBT community or the White House. The president said he felt it was time to allow that union for him, personally - read the White House will not get behind this. And he said states should still make that decision. In was an opinion with no promise of action on his part.
This is from Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review, writing on CNN. Let's be clear, she writes. It's not Obama's fault that Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says marriage refers only to heterosexual couples. Obama says he opposes that legislation. But the Obama administration has gone out of its way to create an impression that it is done much more for gay people than it actually has.
In fact, Obama's Justice Department actively defended the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court until last year, when Karen Golinski, a federal lawyer, managed a rare victory in obtaining coverage by the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program for the woman she legally married. The Obama administration made sure the benefits would not extend to anyone else. In light of these contradictory, almost deceptive, moves by his administration, it's no wonder Obama has found himself swirling in turbulence over his wobbly position on gay rights.
This from Charles Kaiser, also on CNN: People like me, who were among his most passionate supporters in 2008, felt a sense to gigantic relief. The man who seemed like such a courageous candidate four years ago, finally sounded like a genuinely courageous president. Coming so soon after his decision not to sign an executive order that would've banned discrimination against gays and lesbians among federal contractors, Wednesday's statement instantly obliterated the doubts of millions of his gay supporters. Among the president's most fervent supporters, a latent fear remains - this announcement could cost him the election. But a new feeling offers gigantic compensation, the conviction we really did elect a genuinely transformational president.
Let's see if we go next to - this is Tim. Tim with us from San Francisco.
TIM: Hey, thanks for taking my call. There is a part of the gay-lesbian-transgender conversation that is happening in San Francisco that's not happening on the radio with NPR or any other station. And there are many gays and lesbians and transgenders who believe that we are a race of people. And the way that we are a race of people, is we're distinctly different than any other race in the idea that we do not sexually identify as heterosexual. Now, if you take that idea of 10 percent of the population of the world, we equal 300 million people. That's the population of the United States.
And with that amount of people, we are a race of people, not a type of person. And I don't believe Barack Obama has gone far enough. All he has to do is say that the LBGT people are a race, and this whole conversation ends. We no longer have a difference between us and them. We are a race of people, and it needs to be addressed and it needs to be talked about.
CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call.
TIM: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Regina in Williams, Arizona. I'm very proud of our president for standing up for what he believes in, regardless of being in a midst of an election. I believe what's changed is that President Obama gave humanity to many people who have felt alienated from our country for way too long. And this from the Newark Star-Ledger's editorial about one important change. Obama's support is not just symbolic, the newspaper wrote. Gay activists were quick to point out the implications for debates around the country.
When Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed a marriage equality bill and then said he put the civil rights of gays up for a referendum, he used Obama's support for civil unions as a shield from critics. But our governor can't duck behind that argument any longer. Is Governor Christie now willing to take the, quote, "exact same position" as the president? Let's go next, to Mustafa. Mustafa with us from Albany, California.
MUSTAFA: Hi. I just want to add that President Obama did the right thing. He needs to stand his ground. It doesn't matter - I mean, if he loses the election, because what matters is what the Democratic Party is for. They're for the rights of minorities, the rights of immigration, the rights of immigrants. And these are the things that made this great - I mean, this country great, and this party that attracts a lot of people like myself. As a matter of fact, my sister-in-law is gay, and she and her partner have a kid. And that kid, by far, she is the smartest, the most well-behaved, well-educated kid I have seen.
And from that perspective, I was not only for, but I'm a big believer. I'm a big believer. And by the way, people who think of marriage as exclusively for men and women, why are we squandering marriage between men and women alike and that? Also, it has become like a transaction. There are so many marriages like transactional. It has nothing to do with religion. We have to take the religious part of it. What I want to advise Obama, if he can hear me, he needs to only just state what he needs to state. He needs to forcefully go with this because this is - these are the things that make the party together. And I'm losing my thoughts here, I'm sorry, but...
CONAN: That's all right. We're losing the time, Mustafa, so we're going to have to bail anyway. But thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
MUSTAFA: Thank you.
CONAN: And we'd like to thank everybody who called and emailed and tweeted. Sorry, we couldn't get to everybody's reactions, a change since yesterday when President Obama came out in support of the legalization of same-sex marriage. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.