Gay rights groups lauded President Obama for pledging Wednesday night to work this year to repeal the ban on gay people from openly serving in the armed forces, ratcheting down their criticism of the president for not working quickly enough to overturn the policy.
In his first State of the Union address, the president said he would work with Congress and the military to lift the 15-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, setting a rough timeline for repealing the increasingly unpopular ban that is particularly disliked by many of his most ardent supporters.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do," Obama said late in a 70-minute speech that focused primarily on job growth and the economy.
Gay rights groups who had been waiting for the president to take concrete steps towards lifting the ban, a promise he made during his 2008 campaign, were encouraged by the president's suggestion of a truncated timeline.
"We applaud the President tonight for his call to Congress to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' this year. We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010. We call on the president to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Sevicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Public and political support for lifting the ban has increased significantly since President Bill Clinton announced the compromise policy in 1993, but a number of lawmakers in both parties and in both houses of Congress have said they do not believe the law should be overturned.
"I am immensely proud of, and thankful for, every American who wears the uniform of our country, especially at a time of war, and I believe it would be a mistake to repeal the policy," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a statement.
"This successful policy has been in effect for over fifteen years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. We have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country, and the men and women in uniform are performing heroically in two wars. At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy," said McCain.
A bill to lift the ban has already been introduced in the House of Representatives. Democrats in the Senate have signaled they will soon being to hold committee hearings.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have both said they plan to testify before the Senate when hearings are held.
Gates was seen applauding when when the president mentioned repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" during the speech.
In May 2009, a USA Today/ Gallup poll found 69 percent of respondents favored allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
The Democrats who chair the two chambers' armed services committees are split on their support of the policy.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate committee, has come out in favor of a repeal, but his counterpart in the House, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., is opposed to a change in policy.
"It will be helpful to have the commander in chief and his military leaders support something because it's going to be a lot more difficult to change if they don't," Levin said before the State of the Union.
Already, 187 members of the House have signed on to the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which overturns the policy.