Reporting from Washington -- President Obama on Wednesday signed a bill doing away with the ban on gays serving openly in the military, a milestone he said redeems the sacrifice of gay men and women who fought in every war beginning with the 18th century battle for independence.
Using 15 ceremonial pens, Obama repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” act, beginning the transition to an armed forces in which gay soldiers no longer need to conceal their sexual orientation in order to serve.
Obama cast the issue as part of a string of civil rights struggles that beat back discrimination in favor of a more tolerant, unified nation.
Speaking to a crowd of approximately 500 military leaders, members of Congress, gay rights advocates and service men and women, Obama said, “We are not a nation that says ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says out of many, we are one. We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes all men and women are created equal.”
It was an emotional scene in the Department of Interior, where the bill-signing took place to accommodate an unusually large crowd. As Obama appeared on stage, the crowd chanted, “Yes we can!” -- a slogan from Obama’s successful 2008 presidential race.
A smiling president said, “Thank you. Yes, we did!”
He told a story about how in a recent visit to Afghanistan, he shook hands with a female soldier who pulled him close and whispered to him that he needs to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“And I said to her, ‘I promise you, I will,’ ” the president recalled.
For Obama, repeal is the fulfillment of a major campaign promise and a message to his liberal base that he will fight to uphold core principles. Over the past two years, some of Obama’s liberal supporters were angered by compromises he made in passing a healthcare overhaul and a tax package that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Yet Obama is now building a record that, in some respects, surpasses that of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Clinton tried and failed to overhaul the healthcare system. And he was unable to push through a policy allowing gays to serve openly. Thousands of people were forced out of the armed forces under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” act passed during Clinton’s first term in office.
Repeal became a focal point of the lame-duck congressional session, but the outcome wasn’t clear until the Senate voted 65-31 on Saturday to lift the ban.
Though an important achievement for Obama, White House aides believe his political viability still hinges on the economy. Obama presides over an economy in which nearly one in 10 Americans is unemployed. If conditions don’t improve, he remains vulnerable to a Republican challenge in the 2012 presidential election.
A jubilant crowd watched the historic bill-signing ceremony. Among the guests was Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who was the first American injured in the war in Iraq, according to the White House. In 2003, Alva lost a leg after stepping on a landmine. He received a Purple Heart and a medical discharge. Since then, Alva has been a vocal critic of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
When Obama was introduced, someone in the audience showed, “Enlist us now!” But the transition is likely to take months.
Implementing the new policy is an effort that involves multiple government agencies. Military officials have said they’ll need to educate troops about the new law and come up with policies dealing with benefits for gay soldiers and their families. The current law remains in place until 60 days after Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certify that the military is ready to comply with the new directive.
In a recent news briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said there are “a series of implementation and legal issues that lawyers in this building, as well as in the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, are working through.”
Obama did not lay out a timetable on Wednesday. The president said, though, “We are not going to be dragging our feet.”
Speaking directly to gay soldiers, Obama told them they will be “role models” and asked that they serve with “integrity.”
“And so as the first generation to serve openly in our armed forces, you will stand for all those who came before you and you will serve as role models to all who come after,” Obama said.