President Barack Obama signaled to gay-rights activists Wednesday that he's listening to their desire for greater equality in "a more perfect union." But he didn't give them even close to everything they want, bringing to the surface an anger that's been growing against the president.
"We all have to acknowledge this is only one step," Obama said in the Oval Office, where he signed a memorandum extending some benefits, such as visitation or dependent-care rights, to the same-sex partners of gay federal employees.
But the president's critics — and there were many — saw the incremental move to expand gay rights as little more than pandering to a reliably Democratic voting bloc, with the primary aim not of making policy more fair but of cutting short a fundraising boycott.
"When a president tells you he's going to be different, you believe him," said John Aravosis, a Washington-based gay activist. "It's not that he didn't follow through on his promises, he stabbed us in the back."
Had pledged to repeal 'Don't ask, don't tell'
Obama has refused to take any concrete steps toward a repeal of a policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, even though as a candidate he pledged to scrap the Clinton-era rules. He similarly has refused to step in and block the dismissal of gays and lesbians who face courts-martial for disclosing their sexual orientation, arguing that the only lasting ways would be for Congress to act.
Obama said he wants to see the Defense of Marriage Act repealed and in its place a law that would give the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees health insurance and survivor benefits, among other things.
"I believe it's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it," Obama pledged, flanked by lawmakers and advocates at his Oval Office desk.
Without that repeal, Obama's ultimate goal of extending health benefits would have to wait. Even those who joined Obama at the signing recognized it was only a first step to achieve what they were promised.
"The community has been growing frustrated and the administration has been working on this since Day One," said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group.
Facing fierce anger, Obama approved small changes in benefits available to same-sex couples. For instance, employees' domestic partners can be added to a government insurance program that pays for long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. They also can take sick leave to care for a sick partner or non-biological child.
Even before Obama signed the memorandum, some agencies had voluntarily offered the benefits Obama guaranteed with his signature.
'Over-promised and under-delivered'
But health care benefits — the ultimate goal for many gay activists — remained forbidden by Congress.
"People feel they're owed an apology," said Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues. "People in the gay community feel he over-promised and under-delivered. Now, with over 250 discharges from the military on his watch ... the grace period is over."
Obama sought to paint his memo as a measure that "paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation's pursuit of equality."
"Many of our government's hardworking and dedicated, patriotic public servants have been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy, for one simple reason: The people that they love are of the same sex," Obama said.
Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from a Democratic National Committee event scheduled for June 25 where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to speak.
"Latinos matter for numbers; gays matter for money," Aravosis said.
The leaders' withdrawal from the fundraiser comes after a handful of public missteps that White House officials concede were not handled with the best eye on public relations.
The breaking point came last week, when the administration defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject another state's legalized gay marriages and blocks federal Washington from recognizing those state-based unions. Overturning it is a top legislative target for gay activists. But Justice Department lawyers used incest as a reason to support the law.
Critics saw the Justice memo as evidence of Obama saying one thing and doing another.
"I was profoundly disappointed by this action, particularly coming from this administration," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay non-incumbent to win election to Congress. "I still take President Obama at his word that he is committed to the repeal ... I also recognize that he cannot do it alone."
'We've got more work to do'
Obama on Wednesday again said he was committed to repealing that law but needed lawmakers' help.
"We've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally, to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms, and to bring about that more perfect union," he said.
John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay official in the administration, said the president is doing the best he can while waiting for Congress to act.
"This is a first step," said Berry. "Not a final step."