Attention, Mr. President, More Danger Ahead

03/24/2009 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If they have a gauge to measure the frantic level at the White House, it's probably spinning like a top right now. And if they're not frantic, they ought to be.

In Sunday's New York Times Frank Rich, quoting from a letter to the editor in the newspaper last week, asks if this is President Obama's "Katrina moment." The comparison of the handling of the present economic crisis to the government's notoriously mishandled response to the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans is guaranteed to send the president's staff into panic mode.

In the street -- and I mean Main Street, not Wall Street -- the outrage index has gone off the charts. The administration seemed inexplicably unprepared for -- indeed, they seemed surprised by -- the populist anger caused by the billions in government bailouts of failing banks and the millions in "retention bonuses" paid from that money to A.I.G. executives who'd already left. The White House is now busy playing catch-up in a situation they should have been anticipating weeks ago.

Mr. President, if I may address you directly, you've got another situation looming ahead that also should come as no surprise. It is not the same order of magnitude as the global financial meltdown, but like that meltdown it is predictable and it has the potential to be exploited for political gain -- not your political gain but your opponents'.

In five weeks the House Armed Services Committee will begin hearings on your Defense Department budget for 2010. Senate hearings will follow. You have a choice. You can take the lead and put language calling for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the legislative budget -- or you can wait until your opponents bring it up. The opposition, which may be loud and ugly, will be out to ambush you, Mr. President. Alarmingly, there have been no signs that your administration is prepared for that.

Polls consistently show that some 80 percent of the American people believe qualified men and women should serve openly in the military regardless of sexual orientation. Aside from everything else, like fairness and justice, military readiness demands it. The country could ill afford to lose those 65 translators of Arabic, Farsi, and other languages critical to our mission who were discharged not because they were failing at their jobs but because they were gay. We are fighting two intractable wars and the military is firing highly skilled people because they are gay while admitting convicted felons!

Mr. President, we know you favor getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell but we've seen no signs that you're prepared to take the lead at a time when leadership is demanded. The Secretary of Defense said last week that he'd had "one brief conversation" with you about it. He said that he and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs are "discussing" it. That's not encouraging. When you send your defense budget to the Hill, you've got to be clear on where you stand. You must be ready to take on your opponents, because your opponents are certainly ready to take on you.

Today it almost looks as if you're not only avoiding the issue but hoping it won't come up. Remember the ostrich with its head in the sand?

Some of those on the other side want to keep Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the books, and some want to exploit it for their own political gain. I need hardly point out that their gain is your loss. They want to embarrass you, and if they see an opportunity to drive a wedge between you, Defense Secretary Gates, and the Joint Chiefs, they will seize it. They don't like your favorable numbers and they'd enjoy taking you down a notch or two.

Don't let them. You most especially but also your Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs must be prepared to lead and immediately counter any ugly messages of fear and hate with the message that this law makes no sense at a time the military needs all the qualified men and women it can get. It is absurd to act as if a convicted felon makes a better soldier than a man or woman who is openly gay. But the absurdity of an argument never prevented its being used.

The opposition -- though small -- is organized and repeats, loudly, the same tired old arguments they made 16 years ago when Congress gave us Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the same arguments they made without success against President Truman when he integrated the military in 1947. Mr. President, you cannot concede -- you must not concede -- the advantage to the opposition.

There is already talk on Capitol Hill that the opposition is ready to set you up. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is only the pretext. If you don't frame that debate, if your administration remains silent or you fail to lead, then your hands are most likely tied on getting repeal in this Congress and this miserable law becomes your miserable law. In the process, you will look weak, the opposition strong.

You don't want that. The American people don't want that. But your opponents do want that. It doesn't have to happen. You just have to show that you will lead the way.