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Obama Addresses HRC Dinner


In a speech broadcast by CNN and C-Span, President Barack Obama addressed nearly 3,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans Saturday night at the Human Rights Campaign's annual dinner, touting the success of his young administration's achievements and promising a future where LGBT people live in full equality.

"My commitment to you is unwavering even as we wrestle with these enormous problems," he said, referring to the ailing economy, two wars, and consuming legislative battles. "Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach."

The address at the HRC fund-raiser, where tickets sold for $250 per person, closely mirrored the remarks the president made to LGBT guests at a Stonewall celebration at the White House in June. He ran the litany of equality issues -- hate-crimes protections, employment nondiscrimination, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, fighting HIV/AIDS -- and made his strongest statement of the night on overturning the military's gay ban.

"I will end 'don't ask, don't tell' -- that's my commitment to you," he said, bringing guests to their feet with applause. But the president failed to provide a timeline or any pertinent details for achieving his pledge.

It was a speech long on promises and short on specifics that will most certainly leave the LGBT community divided as to what it means.

HRC president Joe Solmonese introduced Obama, saying, "We have never had a stronger ally in the White House -- never!"

Meanwhile, the LGBT blogosphere quaked with disappointment the moment the president finished.

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One 22-year-old activist, Paul Sousa, instantly floated an e-mail with the subject line, "Obama's HRC Speech: FAIL."

"Of course, it's nice having President Obama speak to us, but that's all it was -- more pretty words," wrote Sousa, who participates in several grassroots activist groups, including Join the Impact. "It was pretty much a rehash of his campaign promises."

Karen Ocamb, a veteran LGBT journalist and news editor of Frontiers in Los Angeles, pecked out a headline for the blog LGBT POV, "Is Obama a sissy?"

Richard Socarides, who served as the LGBT adviser and a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, said the speech probably made a lot of people feel good, but come Monday, there will be no new marching orders to follow.

"It was a forceful call to action, without any plan of attack," said Socarides, who attended the dinner but has largely been critical of the Administration's lack of progress on LGBT concerns thus far.

Hilary Rosen, a CNN contributor and Washington insider, said having President Obama reaffirm his commitment to LGBT Americans in front of a national audience was worth its weight in gold.

"Every minute the president devotes to restating his goals for progress is a moment he is grabbing and focusing the nation's attention on our issues," said Rosen, who was not at the dinner. "The more he talks about LGBT equality, the more empowered Congress will feel to act. And the more will get done."

But Corey Johnson, a 27-year-old New York activist and dinner attendee, said he was "extremely disappointed" even as the older guests at his table relished the moment.

"I think there is a very wide disconnect between people that are here at the dinner and the gay community in general," said Johnson, who also plans on attending the National Equality March tomorrow. "It's an interesting dichotomy between the donor community and average everyday LGBT Americans."

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Perhaps the most passionate defense of the Obama administration came from its highest-ranking LGBT official, John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management.

"This president is with us 100%," Berry said, shortly after Obama's address. "The point that I think the community needs to remember is that we need to get to 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate."

Berry held up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as the linchpin to achieving other equality goals at the federal level and said the votes still aren't there to pass the legislation.

"If we pass ENDA, DOMA will fall in the courts," he said. "After ENDA, there's no constitutional read left for DOMA to stand upon. The courts will now see us as a class with higher scrutiny, and under a higher scrutiny standard, DOMA collapses like a house of cards."

Berry said he does communicate directly with President Obama but declined to elaborate on the nature of their discussions.

Asked if Administration officials are engaged on pushing critical pieces of legislation, he said, "This administration is on the Hill working with members of Congress."

As examples of direct action, he offered up the movement of hate-crimes legislation, which is expected to be signed into law in the coming weeks.

"On hate crimes, the president was very clear. The president engaged and secured the passage of that," he said, noting that the measure failed the last time it was attached to the Defense Department authorization bill in 2007. "This time it worked. Why? Because the president said, 'I want this bill; get it on my desk.'"

Berry also said the White House is working to find Senate sponsors for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

"On 'don't ask, don't tell,' this administration is talking directly to the Hill -- we are in direct discussions with Senator [Joe] Lieberman," he said.

He added that the goal is to secure bipartisan introduction.

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