The dispute opened up an unexpected election-year rift between the president and a loyal political constituency that has scored historic victories from his White House – namely the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the administration’s decision to stop advocating for the Defense of Marriage Act.
Those actions helped trigger an outpouring of financial support from gay donors for Obama’s reelection campaign. But some activists said Thursday that the White House’s decision on the nondiscrimination order — coupled with the president’s unwillingness to fully embrace gay-marriage rights — threaten to dampen enthusiasm.
“This isn’t a broken promise President Obama can blame on Congress,” said Jonathan Lewis, son of billionaire Democratic benefactor Peter Lewis and the funder of the new effort to pressure the White House on the executive order.
“He has not been able to provide a single valid reason for why he is now refusing to sign the executive order protecting LGBT workers,” the younger Lewis added, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “It has become increasingly clear that this decision is based on cowardice rather than principled leadership.”
The order would prohibit discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It has become a major focus for gay-rights groups.
But in recent weeks activists began to worry that the White House might opt against approval. Democratic strategists are wary of any new policies that could be attacked by conservatives as anti-business, and stepping out on gay rights in the heat of an election campaign risks handing likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney a rallying point to energize the evangelicals he has thus far struggled to inspire.
Advocates were informed of Obama’s decision in a tense private meeting Wednesday with top aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz. The officials said the president would not sign the order “at this time” but was instead focused on pushing for passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, according to several attendees.
The White House aides did not seem to rule out a possible change of heart. They said the administration wanted to further study the issue and its impact on businesses and workers — an assertion interpreted by activists as a “kick-the-can” approach to avoid inflaming pre-election criticism.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday rejected the suggestion that Obama was making a political calculation on the executive order. He said legislation would help more workers than a more narrowly targeted executive order affecting only firms that do business with the federal government.
“The president’s record on LGBT issues speaks volumes about his commitment to securing equal rights for LGBT Americans,” Carney told reporters. “The approach we’re taking at this time is to try to build support for passage of this legislation, a comprehensive approach to legislate on the issue of nondiscrimination.”
Officials from several advocacy groups in touch with the White House said Thursday that they did not know what White House officials had in mind for building support — particularly in a Republican-led House not considered favorable turf for gay-rights issues.
Tico Almeida, founder of the advocacy group Freedom to Work, which is coordinating with Lewis, called Obama’s decision a “political calculation that cannot stand.”
Almeida, who attended the meeting with Jarrett and Munoz at the White House along with representatives from the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress, said he pushed back against administration arguments that the executive order could be challenged successfully in court. He said Jarrett and Munoz voiced concern that a conservative business might sue if Obama signed the order, and that he told them years of case law suggested the administration would win any legal battle.
“They seemed to be grasping clumsily for a reason to delay,” said Almeida, a lawyer who previously helped draft the nondiscrimination legislation as a House staffer.
Advocates in recent weeks have showered White House officials with data to make their case — academic studies showing that discrimination costs businesses money, surveys of small businesses showing they agree with protections, and polls showing vast majorities of likely 2012 voters favoring a nondiscrimination policy for contractors.
Supporters of the executive order, including dozens of House Democrats who signed a letter to Obama this month, argue the move would protect an additional 16 million workers not already covered by existing corporate policies or state laws. They say LGBT workers suffer discrimination at a disproportionately high rate. The protection would add to an existing executive order prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin.
“Employers who do discriminate certainly should not be rewarded with taxpayer-funded government contracts,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a participant in Wednesday’s meeting.
Some of the research supporting an executive order was presented by the Center for American Progress, a think tank that is closely aligned with the White House but took the unusual step Wednesday of issuing a press release expressing disappointment with Obama.
“This is an administration that has advanced LGBT equality in historic ways. Our disappointment cannot erase that,” said Winnie Stachelberg, an executive vice president at CAP. She added: “We won’t stop advocating for the president to issue this executive order.”
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said the group would “continue to advocate, to educate, to push and to prod” until Obama changes his mind.
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.