By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com December 22 2010 3:35 AM ET
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is taking the implementation manual for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” with him on vacation, President Obama told The Advocate during a wide-ranging interview late Tuesday afternoon — the first one-on-one interview of his presidency with an LGBT news outlet.
“My strong sense is [implementation] is a matter of months,” Obama said from the Oval Office. “Absolutely not years.”
The president added that he has also broached the topic with Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and that “he’s going to make it work.” Amos has been the most outspoken critic of repeal among the military’s service chiefs.
Obama also said that he is “incredibly proud” of following through on repealing the 1993 law and recalled a pledge he made to a service member while working a rope line in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago.
“A young woman in uniform was shaking my hand — it was a big crowd — she hugged me and she whispered in my ear, ‘Get ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ done.’ And I said to her, ‘I promise you I will.’”
On the question of marriage equality, the president said his “attitudes are evolving.”
“Like a lot of people, I'm wrestling with this,” he said. "I've wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.”
The president also signaled that he and his lawyers are reviewing “a range of options” when it comes to the administration’s responsibility to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, especially since repealing it over the next two years will be a nonstarter with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“I have a whole bunch of really smart lawyers who are looking at a whole range of options. My preference wherever possible is to get things done legislatively,” Obama said, drawing a comparison with repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“That may not be possible in DOMA’s case,” he added. “That’s something that I think we have to strategize on over the next several months.”
Read the full interview here:
The Advocate: Mr. President, you’re on the verge of signing legislation that is arguably one of the greatest advances for LGBT civil rights. What does it mean to you personally? And if you were to put it on a continuum of your accomplishments as president, where do you think it will rank in the history books?
President Barack Obama: I am incredibly proud. And part of the reason I’m proud is because this is the culmination of a strategy that began the first week I was in office. When I met with [Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates and I met with Admiral Mullen, I said to them, “I have a job as commander in chief in making sure that we have the best military in the world and that we’re taking care of our folks who make such enormous sacrifices for our safety. I also have an obligation as president to make sure that all Americans have the capacity to serve, and I think ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is wrong. So I want you guys to understand that I want to work with the Pentagon, I want to figure out how to do this right, but I intend to have this policy.”
And to have been able to work through all the complications of that, arrive at a point where the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom were appointed under Republican presidents, were willing to publicly testify and advocate for this repeal; to have engineered an attitudinal study that vindicated my strong belief that people in the military care about how somebody does their job, not their sexual orientation ...
Did you anticipate that that survey would turn out like that?
I was confident about it because I talked to enough troops and I had a sense of the innate fairness of the American people when it comes to an issue like should people be able to serve their military and potentially die for their country, that military attitudes were not going to be wildly divergent from public attitudes. And then to see how that combination of Gates, Mullen, [and] the study [could] break the logjam and essentially provide the space for people of goodwill of both parties to do the right thing was just really gratifying.
And things don't always go according to your plans, and so when they do—especially in this town — it’s pleasantly surprising. And when I think about the troops who I know are impacted by this — I visited Afghanistan just a few weeks ago. And while I was doing the rope line, a young woman in uniform was shaking my hand — it was a big crowd — she hugged me and she whispered in my ear, “Get ‘don't ask, don't tell’ done.” And I said to her, “I promise you I will.” And for me to be able to deliver that Christmas present to her and so many others is incredibly gratifying.
So I would say, look ... we’ve done a lot this year and we did a lot the previous year, and so obviously saving the economy from depression, getting health care passed, and getting financial regulatory reform are all things that I’m very proud of. But this is one of those issues where you know individual people directly that are going to be impacted and you know it helps shift attitudes in a direction of greater fairness over the long term. I think when people look back 20 years from now they’ll say this was one of the more important things that I’ve gotten done since I’ve been president.
Well, no doubt I think a pivotal moment. And I know that so many people who voted for you, LGBT folks who voted for you, did so because they believe that you were a fierce supporter of equality. Given what you’ve just said, Mr. President, do you think it’s time that gays and lesbians should be entitled to full marriage rights?
Well, I spoke about this recently with some bloggers who were here ...
Mr. Joe Sudbay.
Yes, and Joe asked me the same question. And since I've been making a lot of news over the last several weeks, I’m not going to make more news today. The sentiment I expressed then is still where I am — which is, like a lot of people, I’m wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this. I have always firmly believed in having a robust civil union that provides the rights and benefits under the law that marriage does. I’ve wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.
And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet, but I’m continually asking myself this question, and I do think that — I will make this observation, that I notice there is a big generational difference. When you talk to people who are in their 20s, they don’t understand what the holdup is on this, regardless of their own sexual orientation. And obviously when you talk to older folks, then there’s greater resistance.
And so this is an issue that I’m still wrestling with, others are still wrestling with. What I know is that at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples.
Can you imagine a time when you would get there? I mean, you say “evolving,” and that sort of assumes that you get somewhere. Can you imagine a time of getting there?
I'm going to stick with my answer.
OK. So, looking forward, I know that there are — many of your LGBT supporters would have wished for more in the first two years. And it’s never enough, of course ...
I’ve found that.
And especially like passing employment nondiscrimination ...
And, in fairness, by the way, that is true of every single group of supporters that I have. I mean, there’s not a single constituency that doesn’t think we could be doing more.
And true of every civil rights movement.
I know one of the things that people were interested [in] — especially gay and transgender Americans — was passing employment nondiscrimination protections. But looking forward, it looks like most legislation, pro-LGBT, will be stalled in Congress. So as you look to much of the action that’s going to be happening in the courts — do you think that gays and lesbians and transgender people should have a heightened scrutiny status?
Before I answer that question, let me just say there are still a lot of things we can do administratively even if we don’t pass things legislatively. So my ability to make sure that the federal government is an employer that treats gays and lesbians fairly, that’s something I can do, and sets a model for folks across the board. Our implementation ...
But DOMA, of course, is one of the ...
I understand. Our changes on hospital visitation is something that didn’t require legislation but has concrete impacts, making a difference in people’s lives as we speak.
So I want to continue to look for ways administratively, even if we’re not able to get something through the House of Representatives or the Senate, that advances the causes of equality.
With respect to the courts and heightened scrutiny, I think that if you look at where Justice [Anthony] Kennedy is moving, the kind of rational review that he applied in the Texas case was one that feels right to me and says that, even if he was calling it “rational review,” is one that recognizes that certain groups may be vulnerable to stereotypes, certain groups may be subject to discrimination, and that the court’s job historically is to pay attention to that.
And so I’m not going to engage in — I’m not going to put my constitutional lawyer hat on now, partly because I’m president and I’ve got to be careful about my role in the three branches of government here. But what I will say is that I think that the courts historically have played a critical role in making sure that all Americans are protected under the law. And there are certain groups that are in need of that protection; the court needs to make sure it’s there for them.
One quick follow-up. You’ve taken the oath of office, of course, to protect the Constitution.
This is true.
And so ...
But that does not mean that in every interview I opine on constitutional law.
No, but in fact you’ve opined on very few constitutional [questions] — I think, in this particular case, I think this is something that LGBT people would be hungry to hear you weigh in on.
I’m sure they would be.
Yes, OK. Back to “don’t ask, don’t tell” real quick. How long do you anticipate the certification process [will be]?
I spoke to Admiral Mullen today. He said he’s taking the implementation manual that was a companion to the attitudinal survey off to vacation with him. He is prepared to implement. I spoke to other of the service chiefs, including, for example, General Amos. We saw that in the attitudinal surveys there was the most resistance in the Marine Corps. But Jim Amos said to me that he’s ready to implement and he’s going to make it work.
So my strong sense is this is a matter of months…
Absolutely not years — and that we will get this done in a timely fashion, and the chiefs are confident that it will get done in a timely fashion. They understand this is not something that they’re going to be slow-walking.
Once it’s lifted, of course, there’s no nondiscrimination mandate as it stands. Is that something that you plan to work with the Department of Defense on, setting some internal regulations so that there is a nondiscrimination protection for gays and lesbians, or even issue an executive order?
I think there are a whole range of implementation issues that are going to be worked through in the coming weeks, and so I don’t want to get too far ahead of the process. I want to make sure it’s very deliberate. I want to make sure that these guys have time to answer these questions. But one of the things I’m confident about in the military is, once a decision is made by the commander in chief, it gets carried out and it gets carried out well.
And when you think about what happened in terms of racial integration in the Army or in our military, when you look at women’s inclusion in our military, I think the history has been that there are bumps along the road; new issues arise that weren’t always anticipated — partly, by the way, because it wasn’t done as systematically as we’re going to — as I think we’re going to be able to carry out here — but to a remarkable degree, our military is able to inculcate a strong sense that everybody has got to be treated the same. And I have confidence that that will be true here as well.
So I’m going to be getting recommendations from them partly from tracking what was in the implementation recommendations — about how to move forward to make sure that everybody from the private to the four-star general knows sexual orientation is not a criteria by which they are treating people in a discriminatory fashion in the military. And I’m confident it’s going to be carried out.
So there’s going to be some way of having a nondiscrimination mandate somehow?
I am going to look exactly at what the recommendations are, and we will be making decisions over the next series of weeks about what is necessary to implement not just the letter but the spirit of this repeal.
Big-picture question about LGBT people and where the movement is headed. You’re sitting in the midst of a time that’s of great change. You’re not quite willing to go there on same-sex marriage yet. What do you see as something that moving forward would be one of the biggest possible advancements for LGBT people ...
Potentially in the course of your presidency in the next two years?
Well, look, I would distinguish between things that should get done and I fully support but may still be stalled with a Republican-controlled Congress — or Republican-controlled House of Representatives that's not inclined to go there, versus things that can happen in society at large.
I have been struck — let me take the former — repealing DOMA, getting [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] done, those are things that should be done. I think those are natural next steps legislatively. I’ll be frank with you, I think that's not going to get done in two years. I think that's — we’re on a three- or four-year time frame unless there’s a real transformation of attitudes within the Republican caucus.
Right. Will you use your bully pulpit to lobby for things like that?
Yes, well ...
Because we didn't hear from you much on ENDA. We didn't hear from you much on DOMA.
Well, that's because we were focusing on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
And I’ve got a few other things on my plate.
I’ve heard of some of those.
Yes, exactly. So Congress is a complicated place with 535 people that you have to deal with in order to get anything done. And my belief was when I first came in, and it continues to be, that by getting “don’t ask, don’t tell” done, we sent a clear message about the direction, the trajectory of this country in favor of equality for LGBT persons. The next step I think would be legislatively to look at issues like DOMA and ENDA. And I’m going to continue to ...
But I think people ...
... strongly support them.
I think people wonder what can happen since legislatively that’s probably not going to happen.
I understand, Kerry. But, Kerry, I’m trying to answer your question, and you keep on coming back at me.
So what I’m saying is that we’re probably not going — realistically, we’re probably not going to get those done in the next two years unless we see a substantial shift in attitudes within the Republican caucus.
As I said, though, that outside of legislative circles, attitudes are changing rapidly. They're changing in our culture. They’re changing in our workplaces. One of the most important things I can do as president is to continually speak out about why it’s important to treat everyone as our brothers and sisters, as fellow Americans, as citizens.
And looking for constant opportunities to do that I think is going to be critically important because that helps set the tone and changes the ground beneath the feet of legislators so that they start feeling like, gosh, maybe we are behind the times here and we need to start moving forward. And so you chip away at these attitudes. It also continues to require effective advocacy from groups on the outside.
So I guess my general answer to your question is when it comes to legislation, it took us two years to get “don’t ask, don’t tell” done. I know that there are a whole bunch of folks who thought we could have gotten it done in two months. There were people who thought with a stroke of a pen it could get done. That, in fact, was not the case. But it got done.
And I’m confident that these other issues will get done. But what they require is a systematic strategy and constant pressure and a continuing change in attitudes. And as I said, there are things that we can continue to do administratively that I think will send a message that the federal government, as an employer, is going to constantly look for opportunities to make sure that we’re eliminating discrimination.
What about not defending DOMA?
As I said before, I have a whole bunch of really smart lawyers who are looking at a whole range of options. My preference wherever possible is to get things done legislatively because I think it — it gains a legitimacy, even among people who don’t like the change, that is valuable.
So with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I have such great confidence in the effective implementation of this law because it was repealed. We would have gotten to the same place if the court order had made it happen, but I think it would have engendered resistance. So I’m always looking for a way to get it done, if possible, through our elected representatives. That may not be possible in DOMA’s case. That's something that I think we have to strategize on over the next several months.