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In his first State of the Union address Wednesday, President Obama said he is moving to keep his campaign promises. That includes getting U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August, focusing military might against terrorism and working this year to repeal the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The first two issues have wide bipartisan support. His brief mention about his promise to try to end the military's gay ban was a disappointment to those pushing for change but enough to provoke strong words from those opposed to change.
He also may have launched a battle within the Democratic Party over plans to freeze federal spending for non-defense agencies for three years. The budget freeze, which would not apply to Social Security, Medicare and national security programs, would take effect with the fiscal 2011 budget.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated before the speech she disagreed with the idea of exempting the defense budget, a sign that the economic plan could be in trouble.
Pelosi's break with the administration was called "reckless and wholly irresponsible in time of war" by the veterans' service organization Amvets. "Politics aside, our men and women are in the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. They need our continued support while overseas and long after they return home. Abandoning our military and our veterans to balance the budget is not an option," the group said in a statement.
On the gay ban, Obama said nothing new.
"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," he said, to the applause of most — but not all — Democrats sitting in the House chamber to hear the speech. Most Republicans sat silent.
His remarks were a bit anti-climatic after a key lawmaker said earlier this week that he had been asked to delay the announcement of hearings into changing the policy by administration officials until after Obama's speech. That request for a delay raised expectations that the commander in chief was going to announce something specific, like a plan to appoint a commission to study the issue or that he now had senior military leaders on board to support a policy change.
While saying little on the ban, Obama did elicit opposition. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he saw no reason to change the law.
"With America's sons and daughters fighting two wars, I've seen no data that would convince me that changing the current law or the ‘don't ask, don't tell' policy would make their jobs easier or improve overall military readiness," McKeon said.
"The ability of members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, to make a fully informed judgment about whether the current law should be amended or repealed is heavily dependent upon an ability to obtain objective and comprehensive information from the military services — not partisan political appointees or advocacy groups. If the military services have not done the in-depth analysis to conclusively answer the fundamental questions, then this issue is not ripe for discussion," McKeon said.
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, a strong supporter of the current law, said Obama is "out of touch" as commander in chief because there is "no national desire" to repeal the policy. The only people pushing for change, she said, are civilian members of the gay rights community who "expect political payback regardless of the heavy burdens and problems that would be imposed on our men and women in the military."
Before Obama's speech, retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had been urging caution in changing the law, said the time for change has come.
"When I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my support of the current policy was based on my belief that implementing a change in the rules would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders at the time," he said. "The concern among many at that time was that letting people who were openly gay serve would lower morale, harm recruitment and undermine unit cohesion."
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chief sponsor of Senate legislation to repeal the gay ban, said Obama's speech "marks the beginning of a new era of equality and justice in America.
"The military's ‘don't ask, don't tell' policy is an unfair, outdated measure that violates the civil rights of some of our bravest, most heroic men and women," Gillibrand said.
On Iraq, Obama said the U.S. combat mission is coming to an end. "We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August," he said to bipartisan applause.
"We are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people," he said. "We will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promotion regional peace and prosperity. But, make no mistake, this war is ending and all of our troops are coming home."
Sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is part of "renewed" focus "on the terrorists who threatened our nation," Obama said.
"We are increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home," he said. "There will be difficult days ahead but I am absolutely confident we will succeed."