WASHINGTON — Challenged sternly on his economic and social agenda, President Barack Obama on Thursday defended his commitment to ending the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military, telling an audience of young adults that the policy will "end on my watch."
Obama's stance came on the same day the Justice Department asked a federal judge in California to allow the "don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays to continue while department lawyers appeal the judge's ruling that the policy must cease immediately. Obama's administration says such a sudden change could irreparably harm the government.
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Against that backdrop, Obama sought to assure at a town hall meeting Thursday that he still strongly opposes the policy, but that it must be ended in an orderly way in a time of war. He was challenged by a Howard University faculty member who questioned his "alleged commitment to equality for all Americans — gay and straight."
Obama said he has been clear and consistent in his opposition. "That's point No. 1," he responded sharply. He said his administration has moved much closer to ending the policy but his powers are limited by existing law.
"This is not a question of whether the policy will end," he said. "This policy will end. It will end on my watch. ... I can't simply ignore laws that are out there. I have to work to make sure they are changed."
'Why should we still support you?'
The moderated conversation with the young adults was stern and sober. His questioners pressed him on unemployment, illegal drugs and immigration, racism, Social Security, discrimination and bullying, and the partisan atmosphere in Washington. One man asked him: "Why should we still support you?"
The event was sponsored by MTV, BET and CMT, and the three entertainment networks sought to make sure the topics and their audience was diverse.
The president, seeking to recapture the voter energy of his 2008 campaign and channel it toward the upcoming midterm elections, is not on the ballot this time. But in campaigning to keep his Democratic allies in the House and Senate in power, he found himself challenged on his record. He responded at length.
One man questioned the effectiveness of the massive economic stimulus plan that Obama endorsed and worried about taxes going up. Obama responded that the stimulus is working — "3 million folks are working now that would not otherwise be working" — and said most people have gotten a tax cut on his watch.
A woman who identified herself as a Republican questioned why Obama hadn't ushered in the bipartisanship in Washington that he had promised. Obama said he hoped he would get more cooperation from Republicans after the Nov. 2 elections, but that many in the GOP have shown no such interest so far.
On harassment and bullying, Obama said his "heart breaks" when he hears about incidents like the one at Rutgers University last month in which a college freshman committed suicide after an intimate encounter he had with another man was broadcast on the Internet.
Obama urged schools and universities to implement policies that make clear that any form of harassment, including on the Internet, is unacceptable. However, the president acknowledged that there are challenges when it comes to policing the Internet, where information flows freely and is not censored.
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