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Will Obama Press To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

Dec 22, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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David Welna

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Mr. President-elect, you rarely spoke out as a candidate against the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that excludes openly gay people from the military. But when the group Human Rights Campaign asked you about it a year ago, you said this: "America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. All that is required is leadership."

Then in July, when The Military Times asked you about ending that policy, you sounded a bit more conciliatory. "This is not something that I'm looking to shove down the military's throats," you said.

"I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way. But I do believe that at a time when we are short-handed, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States, and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so."

A Shift In Attitudes?

As you must know, Mr. President-elect, since "don't ask, don't tell" debuted 15 years ago, more than 12,000 gay service members have been expelled. Both Great Britain and Israel, in the meantime, decided to let gays serve openly.

Public opinion has shifted as well: 75 percent of Americans polled last summer said they support gays in the military, compared with just 44 percent in 1993.

Here's openly gay Rep. Barney Frank's take: "I think, essentially, 15 years later, the attitude in the country towards the gay, lesbian, bisexual people is a lot less prejudiced and a lot more sophisticated."

Still, the Massachusetts Democrat is willing to let you sort out another big issue, Mr. President-elect, before you take on "don't ask, don't tell."

"I'm confident we'll be able to repeal that in the first Congress, in the first two years — but I think the priority has to be to get the Iraq policy set, and then move to repeal it," Frank said.

Gauging The Opposition To Repeal

Clearly, there's concern among advocates that moving too quickly on gays in the military could damage your debut, just as it did Bill Clinton's. Retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett is one of more than a hundred admirals and generals who signed a statement released last month demanding that "don't ask, don't tell" be repealed.

But Barnett says it's important that your administration first lay the groundwork for such a repeal.

"I think that they're going to want to talk to a lot of people, including the military leaders — talk about how it can be implemented, what the ramifications and implications are, and how they can go forth on a step-by-step process," Barnett said. "And I personally would not ask for anything more than that."

In any case, it would take an act of Congress to do away with "don't ask, don't tell." And while the next Congress will have a lot more Democrats, you cannot, as President Obama, expect all of them to vote for repeal. You'll also have quite a few Republican lawmakers who see no need for a change, like Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.

"I think the policy is working well. I haven't sensed that the military is calling for a change," Sessions said. "So I don't, would not, favor changing the policy, based on what I know today."

It's also unknown, Mr. President-elect, how much support you'll get from your top military leaders.

"I would say, continue to reach out to the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs," advises Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, "to seek a favorable recommendation from them for the House bill."

Seeking Momentum In Congress

That House bill is blandly named the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, and you've promised to throw your administration's weight behind it. It would lift the ban on gays in the military.

"I think everybody knows it's going to happen — the question isn't when, it's really how," said the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA). She says she doesn't have enough House sponsors right now for it to pass, but she predicts that will change once you're sworn in as president.

"We'll reintroduce the bill," Tauscher said. "We've got about 145 sponsors now; we hope to move toward the 218 that we're going to need to pass it. We need a Senate sponsor of similar legislation, and we'll begin to do what Congress does."

Which would be to hold hearings in the spring. But Tauscher and others say they're really looking to you, Mr. President-elect, to thread the needle on this — first, to get everyone on board who needs to be, then to lead the push for repeal.

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