Today, President Obama signed an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating in hiring based on sexual discrimination. As Jonathan Capehart notes,  the order “will apply to the 24,000 companies designated as federal contractors whose 28 million workers make up a fifth of the country’s workforce.”

As such, argues Christopher Ingraham, the measure is “both wide ranging and narrow.” It is narrower than the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have applied to all workers, not just those for federal contractors, but ENDA won’t happen, even though it passed the Senate, because House GOP leaders won’t allow a vote on it, presumably out of fear that it would pass. However, it is broader than ENDA, because Obama decided against including ENDA’s religious exemption in the executive order:

To the extent that the measure is at all controversial it will be because of the lack of religious exemption. Obama likely wants to avoid another situation like the recent Hobby Lobby case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can’t force private, closely-held businesses to provide birth control as part of their health care plans if they object to it on religious grounds. By not providing a religious exemption in this order, Obama is aiming to remove those grounds completely, at least from a legal standpoint.

Steve Benen comments:

This has been a lingering question about the president’s executive order since we learned it was on the way, and a variety of conservative groups pressured the White House to include an exemption. Obama did no such thing. If an employer wants to discriminate against LGBT employees, it will have to decide whether that is a higher priority than doing business with the federal government. [...]

I’d expect the political fallout to be minimal. Most Americans assume LGBT Americans already enjoy anti-discrimination protections, suggesting Obama’s latest move, while important, probably won’t seem especially shocking to the American mainstream.

Yes — in fact, the fallout will probably be minimal in spite of the lack of a religious exemption. And I think this gets at why today’s move is really important.

The story of gay rights during the Obama era is that small changes had to be piled up on top of one another in order to get around the GOP refusal to evolve along with the culture. Let’s recap: We’ve had an end to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The refusal to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act in court. A historic presidential declaration of support for gay marriage. The filing of a sweeping brief to the Supreme Court arguing that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, which helped underscore the degree to which the country is changing. An expansion of federal benefits to gay couples in almost all instances, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision striking down DOMA. And now, today’s executive order.

The response to much of this from Republicans has ranged from (at worst) active opposition to change (such as opposing an end to DADT or not allowing a vote on ENDA) to (at best) acquiescing quietly to change (such as saying nothing in response to the news of today’s executive order). The best way to understand this is in the larger framework Ron Brownstein has articulated:

Beyond contraception and immigration, the parties are escalating their conflicts over a broad suite of issues that divide the electorate along cultural lines, including gun control, gay rights, abortion, and climate change (which politically pivots on trust in science). Combined, these confrontations are stamping the GOP as what I’ve called a “Coalition of Restoration” primarily representing older, white, religiously devout, and nonurban voters who fear that hurtling change is undermining traditional American values. Democrats in turn are championing a younger, more urbanized, diverse, and secular “Coalition of Transformation” that welcomes the evolution in America’s racial composition and cultural mores.

As Obama struggles through his second term, it’s clear one of his signal legacies will be cementing the Democrats’ connection with that coalition’s cultural priorities. It’s easy to imagine Hillary Clinton or another future Democratic presidential nominee offering more centrist fiscal or foreign policies than Obama. But on cultural issues Obama has led his party across a Rubicon.

Obama had to be pushed very hard to come out for gay marriage, and he was much slower to come around to today’s executive order than many wanted.  The real heroes and heroines in this big story are the gays and lesbians who pushed and pushed and pushed for decades. But Obama ended up doing his part, and during his presidency we have seen an astonishing amount of change when it comes to gay civil rights. Meanwhile, Republicans have essentially sat on the sidelines or engaged in active resistance while a major cultural transformation took place — and with that transformation likely to result in a momentous SCOTUS decision enshrining a constitutional right to gay marriage, there are no signs that this is going to change.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.