WASHINGTON - President Obama signaled to gay-rights activists yesterday that he's listening to their desire for greater equality in "a more perfect union." But he didn't give them even close to everything they want, bringing to the surface an anger that's been growing against the president.

"We all have to acknowledge this is only one step," Obama said in the Oval Office, where he signed a memorandum extending some benefits, such as visitation or dependent-care rights, to the same-sex partners of gay federal employees.

But the president's critics - and there were many - saw the incremental move to expand gay rights as little more than pandering to a reliably Democratic voting bloc.

"When a president tells you he's going to be different, you believe him," said John Aravosis, a Washington-based gay activist. "It's not that he didn't follow through on his promises, he stabbed us in the back."

Obama has refused to take any concrete steps toward a repeal of a policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, even though as a candidate he pledged to scrap the Clinton-era rules.

Obama said that he wants to see the Defense of Marriage Act repealed and in its place a law that would give the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees health insurance and survivor benefits, among other things.

Facing fierce anger, Obama approved small changes in benefits available to same-sex couples. For instance, employees' domestic partners can be added to a government insurance program that pays for long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. They also can take sick leave to care for a sick partner or non-biological child.

But health-care benefits - the ultimate goal for many gay activists - remained forbidden by Congress. *