In an interview with the New Republic President Obama claims ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell via an executive order would have caused “huge blowback,” but this claim is highly dubious.
So a great example of that is the work we did on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There were advocates in the LGBT community who were furious at me, saying, “Why don’t you just sign with a pen ordering the Pentagon to do this?” And my argument was that we could build a coalition to get this done, that having the Pentagon on our side and having them work through that process so that they felt confident they could continue to carry out their missions effectively would make it last and make it work for the brave men and women, gays and lesbians, who were serving not just now but in the future.
And the proof of the pudding here is that not only did we get the law passed, but it’s caused almost no controversy. It’s been almost thoroughly embraced, whereas had I just moved ahead with an executive order, there would have been a huge blowback that might have set back the cause for a long time.
While it is impossible to prove a negative, it is important to set the record straight. Obama promised to end DADT during his 2008 campaign, so if he ended it in his first hundred days that would have bene completely expected. More importantly, ending DADT was very popular. According to Gallup in May of 2009, an incredible 69 percent of Americans supported letting gays serve openly. Ending DADT was even supported by a solid majority of Republicans and Conservatives. It wouldn’t have even been a novel use of executive order, Obama would simply have been following the example of Harry Truman integrating the armed forces.
Actually political blowback is very rare. It normally happens when a decision results in a true disaster or it is unexpected, very unpopular, and significant. Ending DADT did not fit the criteria.
I know Obama loves to push this narrative because it fits his old message about bringing people together. It also makes his decision seem smarter in retrospect, but this is more myth than reality. It is simply not believable that a President using executive order to fulfill a extremely popular campaign promise would have caused backlash.
The reason the law ending DADT caused almost no controversy wasn’t because it was the product of slow process of bipartisan legislative concession building. It caused no controversy because the vast majority of Americans saw it as the right thing to do.