WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to address the nation's largest gay rights group this weekend in an effort to mollify an uneasy Democratic constituency frustrated with the White House's slow pace.
Obama plans to address Saturday's Human Rights Campaign fundraising dinner gala, the organization and the White House announced Monday afternoon.
"It is fitting that (Obama) will speak to our community on the night that we pay tribute to his friend and mentor Sen. Edward Kennedy, who knew that as president, Barack Obama would take on the unfinished business of this nation – equal rights" for the gay community and for "every person who believes in liberty and justice for all," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.
The dinner falls on the eve of the National Equality March, expected to draw thousands of gay and lesbian activists to the National Mall. Many have been critical of Obama's slow pace on redeeming campaign promises to end a ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military and pushing tough nondiscrimination policies.
"Eleven months after his election, he has failed to deliver on any of his commitments to gay Americans, but even worse has been his refusal to engage around these issues," said Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton's administration on gay and lesbian policy.
"What he needs to do now is engage and deliver," said Socarides. "Spend some of his political capital on ending the gay military ban, a hugely symbolic issue. And with no intellectually sound arguments left against it, come out squarely for gay marriage equality."
Obama wasn't likely to go that far, though, despite a rocky relationship with gay grass roots activists. He has taken a slow and incremental approach to the politically charged issues. He has expanded some federal benefits to same-sex partners, but not health benefits or pension guarantees. He has allowed State Department employees to include their same-sex partners in certain embassy programs already available to opposite-sex spouses.
But that remains far short of his campaign rhetoric.
"At its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans," Obama said a 2007 statement on gay issues. "It's about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect."
Since then, he publicly has committed himself to repealing 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. On Jan. 9, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs answered "yes" when asked whether the administration would end a policy that has seen the dismissal of more than 12,000 troops after their sexual orientation was revealed.
But as president, Obama hasn't taken any concrete steps urging Congress to rescind the Clinton-era policy that some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged is flawed.
Yet the office of the current chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, signed off on a journal article that called for lifting the ban, arguing that the military is forcing thousands of military members to live dishonest lives.
Obama also pledged during the campaign to work for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits how state, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits. But lawyers in his administration defended the law in a court brief. White House aides said they were only doing their jobs to back a law that was already on the books.
Even before Obama took office, he disappointed gay and lesbian activists who objected to the invitation to evangelist Rev. Rick Warren's participation in the inauguration despite Warren's support for repealing gay marriage in California.