WASHINGTON (AP) — The refrain sounded by his aides is accurate: Barack Obama has done more for the cause of gay rights than any president before him.
Nonetheless, gay-rights activists and organizations are on the president’s case these days, pressing him for further steps on two fronts and suggesting that political timidity is holding him back.
One source of frustration is Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage – he has yet to endorse it even though he advocates equal rights for gay and lesbian couples. Tensions may mount as activists and many leading Democrats call for the Democratic National Convention to support marriage equality in the platform it will adopt in September.
The other dispute involves a months-long campaign by gay-rights advocates urging Obama to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The White House says Obama supports the goal of such workplace protections but believes the best solution is for Congress to pass the long-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend those protections to workers in all sectors nationwide.
Many gay activists don’t buy that explanation, given that the act has no chance in the current Congress. They wonder why issuing the executive order doesn’t fit with Obama’s recently adopted “We can’t wait” strategy of taking actions that don’t need congressional approval.
“I don’t know their rationale – it’s some bizarre political calculus,” said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the gay-rights advocacy group Lambda Legal. “Are we being kept on hold for another year because some hypothetical group of voters is going to freak out over job protections?”
The differences over the two issues pose a challenge not only for the White House, but also for gay-rights leaders who – however impatient – fervently want Obama re-elected and are wary of undercutting him to the point of political damage.
“Our job is to continue pushing on issues important to our community and we won’t stop doing that,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign. “We fully realize that we’re pushing a friend – a friend who has done more for our community than anyone who has ever held his office.”
Obama’s campaign, aware of the discontent, trumpets the president’s role in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell’ so gays can serve openly in the military and his decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex couples.
“This record stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney’s,” said campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing. She noted that Obama’s presumed Republican opponent has been endorsed by the National Organization for Marriage, which obtained Romney’s pledge to oppose same-sex marriage.
Romney has rarely raised gay-related issues on his own during the campaign, and one of his few moves that might have impressed some gays went awry this week with the resignation of Richard Grenell as his national security spokesman. Grenell is openly gay, and some conservative critics suggested that would pose problems for Romney’s campaign.
Gay-rights leaders, for all their impatience with Obama, do not expect a large-scale defection of gays to support Romney. But there is concern that the differences could dampen enthusiasm among potential donors and possibly affect turnout on Election Day.
It’s not just gay activists who are upset. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times, which generally support Obama, ran editorials in April criticizing his reluctance to issue the executive order.
“His hesitation to ban gay bias by government contractors, like his continued failure to actually endorse the freedom to marry, feels like a cynical hedge,” the Times said.
Those lobbying for the executive order say there’s ample precedent, notably a 1941 order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt banning workplace discrimination by defense contractors on the basis of race, religion or national origin.
Among current federal contractors, most of the large firms already have nondiscrimination policies covering sexual orientation. But the Williams Institute, a gay-rights think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that 16.5 million employees work for contractors that lack such policies.
Cathcart said Lambda Legal receives many hundreds of calls annually from gays and lesbians reporting job discrimination – justification, in his eyes, for keeping the heat on Obama despite his strong record on gay rights.
“It’s true there’s been a lot of breakthroughs, but I don’t think breakthroughs happen without a lot of outside pressure,” Cathcart said.
Tico Almeida of Freedom to Work, one of the advocacy groups leading the push for the executive order, said he has met twice with White House aides. He is confident Obama eventually will sign the order and maintains “a sliver of optimism” that it could happen this spring.
“They need to rip this off like a Band-Aid,” Almeida said. “The drumbeat is going to continue for months and months, and the best way to have this become a nonissue is to do it quickly.”
If that doesn’t happen, he said, the pressure will continue. His group is making plans to fly victims of anti-gay workplace discrimination to Washington to seek meetings with White House staff.
Obama aides at the White House and in his re-election campaign say the administration understands the frustration within the gay-rights community, but they depict overall relations as constructive despite some tactical differences. While trying to keep gay and lesbian voters energized, they have tried to tamp down expectations that Obama might declare his support for gay marriage before the election.
As for the gay-rights plank to be considered at the Democratic convention, the platform writing committee has yet to be formed. It’s unclear at this stage how far, if at all, the language it adopts might go beyond Obama’s current position on same-sex marriage, which he describes as “evolving.”
Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee – and gay himself – predicted that the platform committee would adopt language emphatically supporting equality for gay and lesbian families.
“It was a very strong platform in 2008 and I would expect it to be even stronger this year,” he said.
Among those urging adoption of a marriage-equality plank is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is the convention chairman and a co-chairman of Obama’s re-election campaign. Numerous Democratic senators have endorsed the proposed plank, as has House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, says Obama and his advisers should take heed of opinion polls showing that a majority of independent voters, as well as Democrats, support same-sex marriage.
“He has very little to lose and a lot to gain by standing where the majority of Americans are, where voters that he needs want him to be,” Wolfson said. “Sometimes political operatives can be overly cautious, but 2012 is not the time for that.”
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., one of four openly gay members of Congress, said he wished Obama would be “more aggressive” in banning anti-gay bias in the federal workforce. Regarding the party platform, however, he suggested a confrontation over marriage was not inevitable.
“When you have a platform for a broad coalition, you will have some parts that not everyone agrees with,” he said.
Ethan Geto, a New York consultant who has advised Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats on gay-rights issues, recommended that Obama sign the workplace executive order swiftly but said the marriage issue was more complicated.
“It is conceivable that if the president were to publicly endorse marriage equality at this juncture, maybe it would be a sufficiently potent weapon that Republicans could use in a handful of states,” Geto said. “If something rises to the level that it might lose him some states, my judgment is, don’t try to force him into a corner.”
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