In his first State of the Union address on January 27, 2010, President Barack Obama explicitly stated his plans to end the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy on homosexuals serving in the armed forces: “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.” The President is not alone in his belief that the policy should come to an end. Nearly two out of three Americans believe the policy constitutes discrimination and 57 percent believe that homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military, according to a February 2010 Quinnipiac University poll. Still, the policy has persisted well into the President’s term and no concrete action has yet been taken while DADT discharges continue. In fiscal year 2009 alone, 428 service members were discharged despite continued U.S. involvement in two wars. With public opinion supporting the repeal of the policy, the continued gap between the President’s rhetoric and his actions risks squandering the apparent momentum toward the abolition of DADT.
There are several different legal avenues available by which to repeal DADT. Because the policy was enacted under the Fiscal Year 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, any actual repeal of the law would have to come from either Congress or the courts. So far, President Obama has advocated against attempts in Congress to introduce legislation repealing the law or suspending discharges. In June 2009, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the policy, indicating the Court is not currently interested in addressing the issue. The latest Congressional development came when Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill to repeal DADT, but sources have suggested that the President supports including the measure in the 2011 appropriations bill for the Department of Defense, at the earliest.
Despite the delay in the adoption of legislation and the impasse in the courts, President Obama could take immediate action to prevent further discharges under DADT. While not able to affect the law itself, the President has wide latitude in matters concerning the armed forces. The Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara has persuasively argued that the President could issue an executive order to halt all discharges under DADT. Despite the availability of such an option, the President continues to decline to take immediate action, though the recent DADT modification by Defense Secretary Gates, making it more difficult to discharge under the policy, is a step in the right direction.
While economic and health care issues have been at the forefront of political debate during President Obama’s first year in office, all other issues need not be ignored. Concerns about momentum, in addition to the continued loss of valuable military time, resources, and personnel to a discriminatory policy, only strengthen the case for immediate action. If President Obama is committed to repealing DADT, he should use his own power as commander-in-chief to strengthen the military by halting discharges under the policy and he should not stand in the way of Congress’s efforts to take action. Using the United States’ involvement in two war zones as justification to continue to discharge soldiers willing to fight for their country is arguably not even the best way to support the U.S. military. In fact, many scholars have argued quite the opposite.