MELISSA BLOCK, host: President Obama will have more to say about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" when he speaks tomorrow night to the nation's largest gay rights group. He spoke last weekend at a dinner hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus. He's also been reaching out to Latino voters in recent days. As a re-election battle looms, the president is trying to re-energize the coalition that helped send him to the White House. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the challenges of governing have left some of his early supporters disappointed.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Tomorrow night's speech to the Human Rights Campaign is an encore for Mr. Obama. He first spoke to the gay rights group's annual dinner two years ago.
President BARACK OBAMA: It is a privilege to be here tonight to open for Lady Gaga.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORSLEY: Two years later, gay and lesbian supporters are cheering the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, as well as the administration's decision to end legal support for the Defense of Marriage Act. So far, Mr. Obama has not endorsed same-sex marriage, though he says his views on the subject are evolving. As he told the Human Rights Campaign in 2009, these are emotional issues.
OBAMA: I also appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
OBAMA: ...because it's important to be honest among friends.
HORSLEY: At times, Mr. Obama has been painfully honest with supporters about the limits of what he can do for them, even as he seeks their support. HRC President Joe Solmonese, for example, says Mr. Obama made it clear the fight over "don't ask, don't tell" had to be waged in the Senate, where his own power of persuasion was limited.
JOE SOLMONESE: It's a false notion that the president on any issue can simply wave a magic wand and deliver the votes in Congress. It was going to take, you know, something else or somebody else, either the military leadership or a ground campaign.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama delivered a similar message this week to Latino supporters frustrated by the lack of movement on immigration reform. Mr. Obama challenged Latinos to get more politically active and to focus more attention on Congress.
OBAMA: We have to recognize how the system works and then apply pressure to those places where, you know, votes can be gotten and, ultimately, we can get this thing solved.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's approval ratings among Latinos and African-Americans are still higher than his overall ratings, although support has dipped in both groups. Some want the president to speak more forcefully about the African-American unemployment rate, which is nearly twice as high as the national average. Mr. Obama made waves at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner last week, when he told participants, quote, "Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes."
OBAMA: Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do.
HORSLEY: White House spokesman Jay Carney says Mr. Obama has used similarly tough language with other audiences. UCLA political scientist Andrew Sabl says it will be difficult for the president to recreate the enthusiasm or the turnout generated by his 2008 campaign. Back then, Sabl says, the little-known candidate seemed to channel the disparate goals and ambitions of many different voters.
ANDREW SABL: Somehow he seemed to be speaking for every individual in the movement on a personal and emotional level. In a way, that's frankly impossible to maintain.
HORSLEY: Sabl says in his campaign for re-election, Mr. Obama will have to adopt a different tone.
SABL: He's going to have to dial down some of the rhetoric of the social movement and really be clear about the fact that he can accomplish some things and not others, and should be rewarded for limited but real achievements rather than for promising transformation.
HORSLEY: That argument works for Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign. He says whatever disappointment gay rights activists may feel about the president's failure to embrace same-sex marriage, he expects them to strongly support Mr. Obama in 2012.
SOLMONESE: If we don't re-elect this president, all of the progress we've made over the last couple of years is going to come to a screaming halt.
HORSLEY: Mr. Obama made that case himself last week at a California fund-raiser. Don't compare me to the Almighty, he said. Compare me to the alternative. Scott Horsley, NPR news, the White House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.