A consistent frustration with President Barack Obama by those active on the left is his apparent unwillingness to pay political costs on behalf of core constituencies of his party. But the calculations are not hard to understand, and, just in case you missed them, acolytes of the president and his reelection team will quickly remind you of the anticipated closeness of the coming election and the costliness of embracing key priorities of the left while trying to win independent, middle-of-the-road voters.
But every so often, the almost congenital cautiousness of this administration and president results in decision making so weak, so absent of leadership, that the resulting outcome is wrong from both a policy and a political perspective. Such is the president's recent decision not to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans by government contractors.
Seventy-one years ago, on the eve of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial discrimination by firms and unions doing work for the United States government. How ironic, then, that the first African-American president of the United States will not do for millions of LGBT Americans what Franklin Roosevelt did for racial and ethnic minorities.
Let's be clear. This is bad policy. Twenty-nine states lack any anti-discrimination protection for LGBT workers. Should their employers take exception to their sexual orientation, millions of LGBT Americans are without recourse if they are fired, regardless of how hard they work or how great a job they are doing. And even though an executive order, confined to federal contractors, is not as good as legislation applying to everyone, it is a huge start in protecting LGBT workers. The federal government, let's recall, is the largest purchaser of, well, everything.
But what's most vexing about this decision is that this bad policy choice comes with no political upside whatsoever, a conclusion for which there is a mountain of data. In the 2008 American National Election Study, over 73 percent of Americans (including supermajorities of every racial and ethnic group) favored protection from job discrimination for LGBT people. And this isn't new; in fact, the ANES has been asking this question for 20 years. Since 1992 a supermajority of American citizens have favored anti-discrimination protections for LGBT Americans.
To be sure, this is not a unanimous position. But it is not a big leap to suggest that those opposing these protections are either very unlikely Democratic voters or attach little salience to the issue. By contrast, supporters of anti-discrimination laws, which we see is the vast majority of the public, include not just enthused supporters of the president but also disaffected Democrats and many (most?) independent voters.
All of which is to say that the president's reticence to do the right thing is inexplicable from a political standpoint. For a nice change, good policy and good politics neatly line up. The only remaining question is why the president refuses to act.
President Obama should sign this order and eliminate anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors. And he should do so on June 25, the 71st anniversary of Roosevelt's historic act.