By the time this year’s tally for gay service members discharged under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy had hit 250, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings said he could wait no longer.
The Florida Democrat decided in June to send a letter to President Obama demanding that the policy be repealed. Mr. Hastings said he was surprised when 76 other members - most of them fellow Democrats - agreed to add their signatures, and even more surprised when the letter went unanswered for the next two months.
“We’re being ignored,” he said.
The president won’t be able to ignore the simmering discontent within his own party much longer, the congressman said, not on this military policy or on a range of other issues on which the president appears to be charting a course that veers away from his political base.
Evidence of this has been abundant in the health care debate, where a core group of Democrats reacted angrily to signs that the White House was getting ready to abandon a public insurance plan as part of its health care bill. But anxiety is growing in other areas, too. Environmentalists dislike the watering down of climate change legislation in the House. Anti-war activists are unhappy with the president’s escalation in Afghanistan. This list goes on.
When the president told veterans gathered in Phoenix to help him brace the country for a military escalation in Afghanistan, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin responded with a statement of his own, becoming the first congressional Democrat to call on Mr. Obama to set a timetable for an Afghanistan withdrawal.
“While I am pleased the president recognizes the importance of denying Al Qaeda a safe haven in Pakistan, I remain concerned that the continued expansion of our military operations in Afghanistan will push militants into Pakistan, further aggravating the extremism that has spread to more and more parts of that country,” Mr. Feingold said.
As Mr. Obama has pursued efforts to advance environmental legislation that would use “cap-and-trade” incentives to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a muscular coalition of groups from the left has begun pushing for the bill to go further, rather than see it scaled back in the Senate. The coalition, which includes the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, wrote senators on Aug. 26 to say the House bill “falls far short.”
“We are writing on behalf of the millions of members our organizations represent to urge you to draft a companion bill that provides the transformational change and greenhouse emissions reductions required to avert catastrophic climate impacts,” the letter said.
Mr. Obama’s approval rating remains above 50 percent in most major polls, but the trends have been pointing downward.
One of the constituencies in which Mr. Obama needs firm support is the gay community. The president was elected with enormous financial and organizational support from gay voters, in part because of a campaign platform that included promises to push through legislation broadening the definition of those covered by hate crimes laws, outlawing workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation, and repealing the 16-year-old Pentagon policy known as “don’t ask don’t tell.”
Days before Mr. Obama was sworn in, the president and his top aides reiterated their commitment to allowing gays to serve openly in the military. On Jan. 9, incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared in a video on the Change.gov Web site to answer an e-mail to Mr. Gibbs that had asked, “Is the administration going to get rid of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy?” Mr. Gibbs, on the video, replied, “You don’t hear a politician give a one-word answer much, but it’s ‘Yes.’ ”
The latest estimates suggest that more than 375 service members have been discharged under the policy this year, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which supports repealing the military’s ban on open homosexuality.
Official Pentagon statistics have not been updated since 2007, when 627 service members were discharged.
“There’s a lot of frustration with the pace of change,” said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, a gay advocacy group that has been urging the president to at least halt enforcement of the policy. “We disappeared from the radar screen after the election.”
The Obama administration has made a number of high-profile symbolic gestures in recent weeks aimed at signaling the president’s commitment to equal rights for gays. In June, he became the first president to honor the gay pride movement with a White House ceremony. Last month, he awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the late gay rights icon Harvey Milk.
In recent days, the White House has been involved in discussions about a possible presidential role in a gay-rights march on Washington scheduled for October. Those gestures, though, have not quieted a demand for action.
“I don’t want four years to pass and find that cocktail parties in the White House is all we have to show for it,” said Michael Petrelis, a longtime activist from California.
On the substance of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the president’s position has been that the White House simply cannot act alone.
The White House didn’t return a message requesting comment about its stance on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist for the gay-advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, said the White House thinks it would require congressional action to revoke the policy, a stance that is the subject of dispute.
Mr. Elmendorf said he suspects the president has calculated that a legislative battle is not worth waging at this point, especially if it cannot be won.
“Obama clearly wants to repeal it,” Mr. Elmendorf said. “But there is a sense there aren’t the votes in the Congress to do it right now.”
On this point, Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness agrees.
Ms. Donnelly, a supporter of the policy, said military advisers are likely explaining to Mr. Obama, as they did to President Clinton, that campaigning is one thing and governing another. Ending the policy, she said, would raise objections from within the armed forces.
“He knows it would be harmful to the military,” Ms. Donnelly said.
Not everyone thinks, however, that the president is hamstrung.
Last month, Mr. Hastings attempted to insert language into a defense appropriations measure that would prohibit spending federal funds to investigate or discharge service members on the grounds of them “telling” their sexual orientation. In an interview, the congressman said he received pressure from the White House to withdraw his amendment.
In September, as the debates over health care, environmental legislation and the war in Afghanistan take on a higher profile, the subject of “don’t ask, don’t tell” could put another divisive matter on the president’s desk. Committees in both chambers are planning hearings on legislative proposals to rescind the policy.
The president will pay a political price if he continues to stall, Mr. Hastings said, particularly if coupled with other moves by the White House that further distance Mr. Obama from his political base.
Mr. Hastings has been one of the Democrats most critical of Mr. Obama on these issues in recent weeks. At this point, the congressman told Bloomberg News Service, “The bloom is off the rose as far as Obama-mania is concerned.”