President Barack Obama told the largest U.S. gay-rights group that the progress made on policies that have benefited the gay community still is threatened by opponents who want to “turn the clock back.”
With the presidential election 13 months away, Obama listed the measures taken since he’s been in office, including repeal of the prohibition against gays serving openly in the military, passage of a hate-crimes law, and policies that expand the rights of same-sex couples. The battle, he said, isn’t over.
“This is a contest of values, that’s what’s at stake here, this is a fundamental debate about who we are as a nation,” Obama said in his address to the Human Rights Campaign national dinner in Washington, delivering his second keynote address to the group.
Obama is seeking to revive enthusiasm among his core supporters before the 2012 elections amid concern about the economy and his struggle with Congress over how to trim the nation’s debt. The U.S. economy grew at a 1.3 percent pace in the second quarter and unemployment is forecast by the White House to average 9.1 percent this year.
Obama mixed a recitation of his records on gay rights with a pitch for the $447 billion package of tax cuts and spending he’s proposed to spur hiring and criticism of the Republicans in Congress and those vying for their party’s nomination to challenge him next year.
“We believe in a big America,” he said, that doesn’t let roads and schools crumble.
Without naming them directly, Obama criticized the nine Republican presidential candidates for remaining silent at a Sept. 22 debate when a question asked by a gay soldier from Iraq was booed by several members of the audience.
“We don’t believe in the kind of smallness that says it’s OK for a stage full of political leaders, one of whom could end up being the president of the United States, being silent when an American soldier is booed,” he said. “You want to be commander-in-chief you can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States even when it’s not politically convenient.”
About 3,000 people attended the dinner at the convention center in downtown Washington. Obama drew his biggest cheers from the crowd that he followed through on a promise he made to them two years ago to end the military policy on gays known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“No one has to live a lie to serve the country they love,” he said, drawing a standing ovation.
He appealed to them to support his jobs plan and put pressure on lawmakers to pass it.
“HRC you know how Congress works, I’m counting on you to have my back,” he said.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, made a similar pitch in introducing the president.
“No president has done more to improve the lives of LGBT people than President Obama,” Solmonese said. “President Barack Obama has stood with us, ladies and gentlemen, this is our moment to stand with him.”
John Aravosis, the founder of the AMERICAblog website and an Obama supporter in 2008 questioned whether Obama can again generate the interest and support that fueled his first presidential campaign.
“We know democratic constituencies across the board are less enthusiastic -- the president doesn’t really invest in long term political relationships,” Aravosis said. Still, he said he thinks the gay community may be more willing to give than other Democratic activists because of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t tell, which he said is “something real.”
“The question for people on the left is whether his move back to the base is a temporary arrangement,” he said.
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