There's been lots of head scratching, not to mention disappointment and outrage, over President Obama's refusal to sign an executive order banning anti-gay discrimination by federal contractors. Polling has shown overwhelming support for the order, which would offer protections to millions of American workers. Unlike the issue of marriage equality, which just over half of Americans support in recent polls, the vast majority of likely 2012 voters, 73 percent, favor an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Not only is it the right thing to do now -- and a promise Barack Obama made during the 2008 campaign -- but it's good politics: the president would energize a politically active constituency heading into the election, as well as much of the rest of his liberal base -- a whopping 90 percent of which supports the order. It sends a positive message to independents, who also overwhelmingly support the order (by 70 percent) and tend to vote on attributes of strong leadership.
It would also put Mitt Romney (who in the past supported a federal law banning workplace discrimination against gays, only to flip-flop, as he has on on much else) in an uncomfortable position. He'd be baited to side with a minority of voters (even 61 percent of likely Republican voters support the executive order) against a position he once had himself, all in order to placate the extreme elements of his base at the moment when he's trying to "Etch A Sketch" back to the middle.
This was a screw-up on several levels, by the White House and the Obama campaign. Appearing on my radio program, Freedom to Work president Tico Almeida, one of a group of LGBT leaders brought into a White House meeting last week to be told that the president wouldn't sign the order "at this time," believes the White House and the Obama campaign were overcome with "panic" after a gay male couple announced in the media that they'd be going to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll with their daughter to confront the president on the issue.
Activists had been pushing on the issue for months, but it remained mostly under the radar in the larger LGBT community and certainly in the mainstream media. The White House may have been content to just run out the clock until the election without responding, particularly because it wasn't getting much attention. But when an NBC reporter raised the issue at a White House press briefing after the Easter Egg Roll activists surfaced, it seems that the White House rashly decided to go public early and try to get it out of the way.
What could the panic be about? Some have speculated that the White House perhaps was concerned about religious entities that take money from the federal government causing a replay of the contraception debacle. But in fact, those groups are not contractors; they are grantees. The executive order wouldn't cover them. It would affect mostly secular, for-profit corporations. And for the minuscule number that might have a religious component, Almeida says there would be a religious exemption.
So if fear of religious backlash is the reason, it's a cowardly overreaction, a panic for sure, particularly because the people who would be concerned about this issue, the evangelical right, are already not voting for this president.
The problem for the campaign is that the White House itself brought this issue to everyone's attention by calling the meeting of LGBT activists, inspiring reports of a "rift" with gays where there previously wasn't one, and it's not going to go away anytime soon, as activists now have the support of LGBT people across the country who are suddenly focusing in on this issue.
One thing that's being asked is how gay leaders allowed this to happen. Paul Yandura, a gay former Clinton aide, says the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) gave the administration a pass, with HRC sitting on its polling on the issue when it should have released it publicly months ago, and NGLTF not even sending out a press release right after the meeting to criticize the president.
A larger problem is that HRC endorsed the president a year ago, and all the group appears to have gotten in return was his presence as a speaker at their annual dinner. That helps them sell lots of tickets, but doesn't do much in attaining tangible rights. Had HRC not endorsed Obama until now, they could have told the White House, "This is what we want for our endorsement."
The gay groups worried about losing access not only do a disservice to the LGBT movement in this regard, but by not publicly making it clear that refusing to sign the order will be a bigger headache for the president than that imagined during any "panic," they badly serve the president, as well.