President Barack Obama said over the weekend that he would like to tackle the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy "sooner rather than later." But in an interview with CNN, he also argued that the White House was powerless in seeking such a reversal, forced to wait for the legislative branch to act first. And, in terminology likely to anger the gay rights community, the president called for a "change" rather than "repeal" of the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the armed forces.
In the interview, CNN's Anderson Cooper pressed Obama as to why his administration had not moved on a key promise it made to the gay rights community -- that it would overturn the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy crafted during the Clinton years.
"Look," the president replied, "I've had conversations with [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates as well as Admiral [Mike] Mullen about the fact that I want to see this law change. I also want to make sure that we are not simply ignoring a congressional law. If Congress passes a law that is constitutionally valid, then it's not appropriate for the Executive Branch simply to say we will not enforce a law. It is our duty to enforce laws.
"But look, the bottom line is, I want to see this changed," Obama added, "and we've already contacted congressional allies. I want to make sure that it's changed in a way that ultimately works well for our military and for the outstanding gay and lesbian soldiers that are both currently enlisted or would like to enlist."
"Do you personally have a timetable in your mind of when you would like to see [the law] changed?" Cooper interjected.
"I'd like to see it done sooner rather than later," Obama replied. "And we've got a process to not only work it through Congress, but also to make sure that the Pentagon has thought through all the ramifications of how this would be most effective."
Certainly, the quick timeframe is welcome news for the gay rights community, which has watched with a mixture of horror and bemusement as Obama has kicked his pledge to repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell" down the road. But the specific language of the CNN interview is bound to cause some concern.
"We learned three things," said John Aravosis, the prominent writer and gay activist who runs AMERICAblog. "First, that President Obama no longer wants to repeal 'Don't Ask Don't Tell,' he only plans to change' the law to, presumably, make it better somehow. Second, the president just said that DADT was constitutional. That's news to his supporters. And third, since when did implementation of the president's stop-loss powers have anything to do with whether laws in Congress are constitutional or not? It's increasingly clear that this White House has a severe case of the cooties when it comes to the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans."
Indeed, another gay rights activist made a similar argument to the Huffington Post, questioning whether Obama was being candid in saying Congress had to act first. The Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, he noted, had produced a study showing that the president could, in fact, halt DADT through executive order.
The source also pointed out that the White House caused a brouhaha back in May by significantly weakening the language on its website in regards to DADT -- specifically, substituting the word "change" for "repeal." The language was reinstated a day later, after heavy pressure from the gay rights community.