Gay rights activists vowed Thursday to step up political pressure on the White House over President Obama’s refusal to sign a nondiscrimination executive order, with some decrying the decision as an attempt to avoid controversy before the November election.
One prominent liberal donor said he would spend $100,000 to fund a “We Can’t Wait” campaign targeting Obama, a takeoff on the president’s own slogan for his efforts to use administrative actions as end runs around what he has termed an obstructionist Congress. The donor’s money will be used to fly victims of discrimination at federal contractors to Washington to confront Obama and his aides and gin up public attention.
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.