President Obama said Wednesday that he doesn’t think the “disillusionment” that some LGBT people have for his administration thus far is “justified.” He also refused to say whether he believes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional. And he said he has a strategy for getting the military ban on gays repealed in the lame-duck session.
The remarks came during a 45-minute group interview Oct. 27 with a group of five progressive bloggers. Only one of the five was gay: Joe Sudbay, who blogs at americablog.com. The interview took place in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, a daily meeting room next to the Oval Office.
The interview occurred just one day after the president “dropped by” a meeting between senior White House officials and 10 LGBT activists discussing strategy for passing DADT repeal language during the lame-duck Senate next month.
Sudbay told the president “there is a certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in our community right now.” And he asked whether President Obama thinks DADT is unconstitutional.
“It’s not a simple yes or no question, because I’m not sitting on the Supreme Court,” said Obama, who, ironically, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School before running for the U.S. Senate. Obama suggested his reluctance to answer the question was out of respect for the different roles played by Congress and the Supreme Court.
“But here’s what I can say,” said Obama. “I think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is wrong. I think it doesn’t serve our national security, which is why I want it overturned. I think that the best way to overturn it is for Congress to act.”
The House has passed language to repeal DADT in the annual defense authorization bill. The language included a provision that requires the president, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sign a statement “certifying” that the repeal will not have a negative impact on the military’s readiness. But the same measure was blocked in the Senate after Republicans, led by John McCain, staged a filibuster. Democrats came up three votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster.
Then, President Obama addressed the “larger issue…about disillusionment and disappointment.”
“I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the LGBT community as any president in history,” said Obama. “I’ve appointed more openly gay people to more positions in this government than any president in history. We have moved forward on a whole range of issues that were directly under my control, including, for example, hospital visitation.
“On ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he said, “I have been as systematic and methodical in trying to move that agenda forward as I could be given my legal constraints, given that Congress had explicitly passed a law designed to tie my hands on the issue. And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.”
“Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms,” continued the president. “So it’s not my place to counsel patience. …I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.”
Later on, Sudbay got in another question, this time on same-sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
“Since you’ve become president, a lot has changed. More states have passed marriage equality laws. This summer a federal judge declared DOMA unconstitutional in two different cases. A judge in San Francisco declared Prop 8 was unconstitutional. And I know during the campaign you often said you thought marriage was the union between a man and a woman, and there — like I said, when you look at public opinion polling, it’s heading in the right direction. We’ve actually got Republicans like Ted Olson and even Ken Mehlman on our side now. So I just really want to know what is your position on same-sex marriage?”
Obama said he is a “strong supporter of civil unions” but that he has been “unwilling to sign onto same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage.
“But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine,” said the president. “And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents. And I care about them deeply. And so while I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon, I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today.”
Sudbay quickly asked a final question — whether there is a strategy for passing DADT repeal in the lame duck session.
“Yes,” said President Obama.
“And you’re going to be involved?” asked Sudbay.
“Yes,” said the president.
“Will Secretary Gates be involved?” asked Sudbay.
“I’m not going to tip my hand now. But there is a strategy.”
“I was very deliberate in working with the Pentagon, so that I’ve got the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs being very clear about the need to end this policy. That is part of a strategy that I have been pursuing since I came into office. And my hope is that will culminate in getting this thing overturned before the end of the year.”
Then Obama seemed to take a swipe at the lawsuit being pressed by the Log Cabin Republicans, a lawsuit that has, thus far, been successful in having DADT declared unconstitutional in a federal district court. It is now before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where the Obama administration is defending it.
He suggested the LGBT community needs to be “making sure that all those Log Cabin Republicans who helped to finance this lawsuit and who feel about this issue so passionately are working the handful of Republicans that we need [in the Senate] to get this thing done…. I mean, it’s just — I don’t understand the logic of it. You’re financing a very successful, very effective legal strategy, and yet the only really thing you need to do is make sure that we get two to five Republican votes in the Senate.”
Obama said he told “the Log Cabin Republican who was here yesterday,” R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the national gay Republican group, “that can’t be that hard. Get me those votes.”
“Because what I do anticipate is that John McCain and maybe some others will filibuster this issue, and we’re going to have to have a cloture vote,” said Obama. “If we can get through that cloture vote, this is done.”
An aide arrived soon thereafter and beckoned the president to his next “event.”
The interview was the first time anyone from the LGBT media has been given an opportunity to ask questions of the president since he took office in January 2009. Repeated requests from this reporter have been routinely turned down, including one made less than a month ago.
Sudbay said he has no idea why he was selected to participate with the group of bloggers in the interview.
“It’s not like AMERICAblog hasn’t been pretty tough on the Obama administration,” said Sudbay. He said there were no restrictions placed on his questions during the interview.
Other bloggers who participated included Barbara Morrill from DailyKos, John Amato from Crooks & Liars, Oliver Willis from OliverWillis.com, and Duncan Black from eschatonblog.
The White House has made a complete transcript of the interview available, although it was not up on the whitehouse.gov website as of Wednesday night. It can be viewed on americablog.com.
The president acknowledged, at the start of the sit-down, that the progressive bloggers reach “a huge part of my base,” and the timing of the interview suggests it is part of the president’s ramped up effort to rally the Democratic Party’s base to go to the polls Nov. 2 and preserve the current majorities in the House and Senate.
The administration this week touted the president’s record number of openly gay appointees, sent out a guideline to schools about the need to comply with federal laws that obligate them to prevent bullying, and held the DADT strategy meeting with activists.