President Obama's bold endorsement of same-sex marriage should be only the first of his key acts in behalf of gay Americans. It's now past time for him to redeem a 2008 campaign promise to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against gay workers.
Such discrimination is already banned in Washington, D.C., and 21 states. A presidential order would cover the millions of federal contractor employees in the other states. Building roads, bridges and dams are among the many essential tasks they perform throughout the country.
Previous executive orders, first issued seven decades ago, have made it illegal for contractors to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. Recent investigations by the San Francisco Chronicle and the gay publication Metro Weekly noted that Obama made his promise to add a ban on anti-gay discrimination during a meeting with a gay rights group in Houston four years ago.
The Chronicle quoted Heather Cronk, director of the gay rights group Get Equal, as noting that a non-discrimination order "would give concrete, real-life workplace protections to people who work for federal contractors like ExxonMobil that refuse, year after year, to add those protections on their own."
Cronk recalled that Obama was recently presented with a binder containing more than 40 accounts of workplace discrimination in hopes of making a decisive case for a presidential order. The president accepted the binder, Cronk said, without saying a word. But later, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said the president had no immediate plans to ban contractor discrimination on his own.
That was confirmed a day later by Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary. Carney claimed the president nevertheless "is committed to securing equal rights" for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. He cited Obama's long-time support for the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would give federal protection to LGBT workers in government as well as private employment.
Instead of issuing an executive order, Carney added, the president's plans are to take "a comprehensive approach" by pushing for passage of the non-discrimination act.
But, as the Chronicle noted, "the legislation has no chance of passing in the current Congress," whereas congressional approval is not needed for an executive order to go into effect. In any case, there seems to be only a slight chance that Obama would suffer serious political harm for issuing an order, since polls show strong public support for him doing so.
The president has in fact been losing support because of his refusal to act. The Chronicle, for instance, noted the anger of Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights group that led the legal fight against the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that had excluded gays and lesbians from military service. The GOP group complained that Obama has "turned his back on 1.8 million LGBT workers" and failed to deliver on a policy that has broad, bipartisan support among the American people."
Harsh criticism came, too, from a former congressional staffer, Tico Almeida, who helped draft the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and now heads a group called Freedom to Work. He called Obama's refusal to act "a political calculation that cannot stand" as he announced that his organization was launching a campaign to increase pressure Obama to issue an order.
One prominent – and wealthy – activist who's pledged to contribute $100,000 to the drive to get Obama to change his mind called his refusal to sign an order "craven election-year politics."
Pretty strong language, but Obama's inaction on such a vital issue rightly opens him to such harsh judgment. His endorsement of same-sex marriage took genuine political courage. It proved he has the strength, the will and the ability to take the country another step closer to granting true equality to all Americans. Now the president needs to take that next essential step.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.