Reaching out to a skeptical gay community, President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged Congress to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, but neither made a commitment to suspend the practice in the interim nor issued a deadline.
Obama's reference to the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" practice took only 32 words of his State of the Union address, but drew criticism from Democratic allies and Republican opponents alike. It also underscored the challenge Obama faces, not just with Congress but also with the Pentagon, where some top officials have been strident in their support for the Clinton-era policy.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said.
The statement drew a standing ovation from Congress and from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but it fell short for gay activists.
An organization representing service members who had been dismissed called on Obama to push a repeal in the upcoming Pentagon budget and Clinton's adviser on gay issues called Obama's performance in the first year "an almost complete disaster."
Advocates push for bill
Kevin Nix, communications director at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the group wants Obama to repeal the policy the same way Clinton introduced it in 1993 — through the defense authorization bill.
"We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010," said Nix, whose group estimates more that 13,500 gays and lesbians have been dismissed since 1994. "What is also needed is more attention and leadership to win repeal."
Richard Socarides, a Clinton adviser who has been a vocal critic of how Obama has handled gay constituents, was less reserved.
"In 1999, Bill Clinton became the first president ever to talk about gay rights in a State of the Union address. Eleven years later, not much has changed," said Richard Socarides. Talking again about ending the policy "without a moratorium on the witch hunts and expulsions and without even a plan for future action, just won't cut it," he said.
"Look, we are not second-class citizens and our rights are not second-term problems," he said.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Obama should have announced a suspension of dismissals.
"The time for broad statements is over. The time to get down to business is overdue. We wish we had heard him speak of concrete steps tonight," Carey said.
Obama's relationship with the gay community has been rocky since his election. Gays and lesbians objected to the invitation of evangelist Rev. Rick Warren to participate in Obama's inauguration because of Warren's support for repealing gay marriage in California.
As president, Obama hasn't taken any concrete steps urging the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation or act on it. Some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged the policy is flawed and Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen signed off on a journal article that called for lifting the ban.
'Now is not the time'
Yet Mullen's lawyers have urged a delay that could go into the middle of the next presidential election.
"Now is not the time," the in-house legal counsel for Mullen wrote recently in a memorandum. "The importance of winning the wars we are in, along with the stress on the force, our body of knowledge and the number of unknowns, demand that we act with deliberation."
Mullen received the conflicting advice this month about whether to move quickly to lift the 1993 ban, and it is not clear what he will recommend to Obama. Although allowing gays to serve openly in the military was one of Obama's campaign promises, the issue was put on a back burner during his first year in office. Some liberal supporters and several congressional Democrats are pushing for action.
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee urged Obama to listen to the uniforms.
"No action to change the law should be taken by the administration or by this Congress until we have a full and complete understanding of the reasons why the current law threatens or undermines readiness in any significant way," Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote to Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "whether a change in law will improve readiness in measurable ways, and what the implications for and effects on military readiness, cohesion, morale, good order and discipline are entailed with a change in law."
Republican Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam and Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential race, said the policy has been successful.
"At a time when our armed forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy," said McCain, R-Ariz.