WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama will allow gays to serve openly in the military by overturning the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy that marred President Clinton's first days in office, according to incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
The startling pronouncement, which could re-open a dormant battle in the culture wars and distract from other elements of Obama's agenda, came during a Gibbs exchange with members of the public who sent in questions that were answered on YouTube.
"Thadeus of Lansing, Mich., asks, 'Is the new administration going to get rid of the "don't ask, don't tell policy?'" said Gibbs, looking into the camera. "Thadeus, you don't hear a politician give a one-word answer much. But it's, 'Yes.'"
The Obama transition team declined to elaborate on that one-word answer when asked by FOX News on Wednesday about a timetable for repealing the policy, which was enacted by Clinton after a protracted public debate. Obama officials also would not explain which lawmakers or Pentagon officials would attempt to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
Clinton, who initially sought to overturn the longstanding ban on gays in the military, ended up enacting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as a compromise that made it illegal for commanders to ask about the sexual orientation of service members, who were also barred from announcing they were homosexual. If a service member's homosexuality becomes known anyway, he or she is expelled.
Clinton is widely viewed as having stumbled during his first days in office by getting caught up in the raging controversy, which detracted from the rest of his agenda. It is not yet clear whether Obama would face a similar debacle.
For years, Obama has said he generally opposes the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Last summer, he told a gay magazine he can "reasonbably" see it being repealed. But that was a far cry from Gibbs' unequivocal promise that the policy will indeed be ended.
The gay community is eager for a quick repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but fears it could be months before the new administration reaches a consensus with lawmakers and the military. Others think Obama could do it quickly, but is leery of the kind of fallout Bill Clinton faced when he tackled the divisive issue.
FOX News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.