WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Sunday that gays should be allowed in the Boy Scouts and women should be allowed in military combat roles, weighing in on two storied American institutions facing proposals to end long-held exclusions.
The president's comments in a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS come ahead of this week's meeting of the Boy Scouts' national executive board. A proposal to open up the Scouts' membership to gays is expected to be discussed and possibly voted on at the gathering in Texas.
The Boy Scouts emphatically reaffirmed the no-gays policy just seven months ago, but announced last week they were considering changing the stance. Instead of mandatory exclusion of gays, the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue — either maintaining the exclusion or opening up their membership.
The White House said in a statement last August that Obama opposed the gay ban. Obama, like presidents for the last century, serves as honorary president of the group. The president's comment Sunday was his first since the group announced it was considering a policy change.
"My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life," Obama said. "The Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives. And I think nobody should be barred from that."
Obama also had previously issued a statement supporting the Pentagon's decision last month to open up front-line combat jobs to women, but the interview with CBS' Scott Pelley included his first publicly spoken comments on the matter since the announcement. He said women are already serving in combat "as a practical matter."
"When they're in theater in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, they are vulnerable," he said. "They are wounded, and they've been killed. And they have carried out their jobs with extraordinary patriotism and distinction."
The policy change overturns a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units, and is expected to open up more than 230,000 combat positions that have been off limits to women.
Obama said he meets "extraordinary women in uniform who can do everything that a man can and more." He gave the example of one of his military aides, who he estimated is only about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds.
"You put a 50-pound pack on her, and she can do things that you or me would keel over doing. And so the truth is that women are serving. They are taking great risks. What we should not do is somehow prevent them from advancing in an institution that we all revere."
On the economy, Obama said although more revenue has to be raised to reduce the deficit, it can be done without raising income tax rates again. He said the answer is "smart spending cuts," reducing waste in the health care system and closing loopholes and deductions like offshore tax havens that benefit a few high income earners but not most Americans.
"There's no doubt we need additional revenue coupled with smart spending reductions in order to bring down our deficit," he said. "We can do it in a gradual way so it doesn't have a huge impact."
Coming before the Super Bowl, Obama had to expect he'd be asked about his recent comment that if he had a son, he would have to think long and hard about letting him play football because of safety concerns. Obama said he feel differently about the NFL, where the players are well-compensated adults who know the risks, but the threat of concussions has to give parents pause about letting youth and children play.
"I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make the sport safer, and that means the game's probably going to evolve a little bit," Obama said. "For those of us who like to see a big hit and enjoy the rock 'em, sock 'em elements of the game, we're probably going to be occasionally frustrated.
"But I do think we want to make sure that after people have played the game, that they're going to be OK," he said.
The Obamas were hosting their own Super Bowl party for friends and family at the White House. In honor of the two teams, the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, they were serving Chesapeake crabcakes and San Francisco cioppino stew with sourdough toast. Also on the menu are Clipper City and Anchor Steam beers from the competing cities.
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