Where Does Obama Stand With Gay Voters?

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The Senate vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" is a major victory for the White House and a big boost for the administration's relations with the gay community.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The repeal fulfills a promise Mr. Obama made to his supporters during his presidential campaign. Some of those supporters were becoming disillusioned because it was taking so long. In many cases, gay activists were openly critical - even hostile to the White House.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on whether the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" helps to mend that relationship.

ARI SHAPIRO: In the last two years, Democratic voters often asked President Obama why he had not yet repealed "don't ask, don't tell." His answer always included this pledge.

President BARACK OBAMA: This policy will end, and will end on my watch.

SHAPIRO: But gay activists and other progressives never totally believed him. Columnist Dan Savage, who started the It Gets Better campaign against gay bullying, was one of the loudest voices challenging the White House's record on gay rights.

Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Columnist): There were back-channel communications coming out of the White House to take comfort, and to remember that he's going to have two terms - which is hardly the fierce urgency of now, or fierce advocacy, or fierce anything.

SHAPIRO: So activists increased the pressure. Openly gay Army Lieutenant Dan Choi spoke at rallies and on national television and last year, he handcuffed himself to the White House fence.

Lieutenant DAN CHOI (U.S. Army): And I tell the president: No more, no more.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SHAPIRO: You could see the disillusionment with the Obama administration in last month's midterms. A CNN poll showed that almost a third of self-identified gay and lesbian voters chose Republican candidates over Democrats. That's a new record. And some wealthy progressive donors sat out this round, complaining that President Obama was not fulfilling his campaign promises to the left.

Kerry Eleveld has followed this dynamic as closely as anyone. She's Washington correspondent for The Advocate, a news magazine that covers gay issues. I met her in the Capitol building just after lawmakers had voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

Ms. KERRY ELEVELD (Washington Correspondent, The Advocate): As it's taken longer to get some sort of big wins, I think the relationship has been very strained over the course of time. And what happened today, I honestly believe will correct that in many ways.

SHAPIRO: She says in some ways, the White House just got lucky. More than a year ago, the president started a process that would put "don't ask, don't tell" on schedule for a repeal vote during the lame-duck session of Congress. That's typically one of the most precarious times to pass any piece of legislation.

Ms. ELEVELD: In my mind, they didn't put it on the path to pass this year. But what happened was a confluence of things that fell the right way and actually pushed this through to the end. Having said that, they're going to get credit for this, and they should.

SHAPIRO: But others deserve credit, too, says R. Clarke Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans. His group fought hard to win GOP support for repeal.

Mr. R. CLARKE COOPER (Executive Director, Log Cabin Republicans): If it wasn't for a Collins-Lieberman effort, we wouldn't be having this conversation today.

SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, sponsored the bill that successfully repealed "don't ask, don't tell." And those two are hardly surrogates for President Obama. A repeal effort that was embedded in a larger, defense-authorization bill failed just days earlier.

Mr. COOPER: I don't want to mischaracterize that the Obama White House wasn't in support of a repeal; of course they were. And there's a record of support there. That said, it's nothing short of a miracle that a stand-alone bill was put together so quickly and actually got floor time, and passed in such a short order.

SHAPIRO: Repealing "don't ask, don't tell" required the efforts of the White House and moderate Republicans. And Dan Savage says it also required the insistence and screaming and yelling of the activists on the left. Therefore, he's not about to apologize and keep quiet.

Mr. SAVAGE: The Republican Party's base is very aggressive about making demands on Republican elected officials. And the Democratic base has to be similarly aggressive about making demands, and then being thankful when you get what you want. When you get what you ask for, when you get what you screamed and yelled and demanded, you say thank you - and then you move on to your next demand.

SHAPIRO: A vote on a bill is black and white. Up or down, yes or no - the legislation passes, or it fails. A relationship between activists in the White House - or between anyone - is inevitably, shades of gray.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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