President Obama invoked the ire of LGBT-rights advocates Tuesday night as he failed to mention LGBT workplace protections during a State of the Union address that focused heavily on income inequality.
Coming nearly three months after the first Senate vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) since 1996, Obama's omittance of LGBT workplace protections caused advocates who have otherwise been supporters of Obama to launch criticisms at the most LGBT-friendly president in American history.
"The President's message tonight failed to address the needs of LGBT workers looking for a fair shake in this economy," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said bluntly in a statement. "Not only was there no call for the House to pass a federal law to protect LGBT workers nationwide, President Obama also sidestepped his commitment to take action where Congress has left off, leaving out an order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors."
While Obama has been under renewed pressure to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination — something he promised to do as a candidate for president in 2008 — since threatening earlier this month to use executive action when Congress won't act, few expected that issue to make it into his speech. Indeed, the White House has consistently said for nearly two years they would prefer to see comprehensive federal legislation enacted into law rather than the signing of an executive order for just federal contractors. But Obama's decision not to include mention of ENDA, while that bill remains blocked in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives after it was approved by the Senate with a bipartisan 64-32 in November, left many ENDA supporters puzzled.
"It's surprising and disappointing that President Obama did not mention LGBT workplace protections given that ENDA is one of the few political issues in the country that polls around 70 or 80 percent, and the recent Senate victory proves this issue can attract considerable bi-partisan votes," Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work, told Metro Weekly. "ENDA would have fit perfectly into the themes of this speech."
Although few doubt Obama's commitment to ENDA, which would prohibit most employers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, his failure to call on Congress in front of a national audience to send that legislation to his desk was viewed as a missed opportunity by the country's largest LGBT-rights organization.
"Unfortunately, President Obama missed a real opportunity to use the State of the Union to improve the lives of LGBT people by taking immediate executive action to address anti-LGBT discrimination for the millions of Americans employed by federal contractors," Griffin added. "No federal contractor like ExxonMobil should be able to take billions in taxpayer dollars without safeguards in place to prevent discrimination. The President promised this action in 2007 and we will continue to work with him and Congress to ensure that all Americans can contribute to the economy without fear of anti-LGBT discrimination."
Adding their voices to the criticism was Log Cabin Republicans, who have played a critical role in shoring up Republican support for ENDA (the bill gained its 200th cosponsor in the House this week after Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York attached his name to the bill). Said LCR Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo, "While the President's calls for a more equal nation are welcome, there is a profound irony in the absence of any mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for LGBT workers tonight, and likewise in the President's threat to exercise unilateral Executive actions with the explosive potential to ignite class warfare, while at the same time remaining silent on signing a common-sense Executive Order barring federal workplace discrimination: an empty promise to LGBT Americans that stands unfulfilled after six years."
ENDA supporters on Capitol Hill also expressed disappointment in the absence of LGBT workplace protections from Obama's speech.
"I certainly would've loved to have heard the president recognize that the Senate had a historic 2-1 bipartisan vote in support of ending discrimination for the LGBT community. I certainly hope that he’ll press in other venues for the House to take up this bill," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), ENDA's lead sponsor in the Senate, told Metro Weekly.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is one of Congress's eight out members, said he has no doubts about the president’s commitment to ENDA, but that it should not have gone unmentioned.
"The speech tonight was really focused on very specific economic proposals, and I think ENDA is obviously an economic proposal ensuring fairness in the workplace. I don’t think there is any question that the president has been a strong supporter of ENDA. The challenge right now isn't really with the president, it's with the Congress," Cicilline told Metro Weekly. "But I wish he had included it of course."
While Obama did not explicitly call on Congress to pass ENDA, it appears passage of ENDA remains a key part of the White House's agenda. In a fact sheet distributed by the White House outlining Obama's agenda, ENDA is mentioned under a section outlining what Obama plans to continue working on with Congress.
"Today, federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and disability," the document states. "It's time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list, so that no American worker can lose his or her job simply because of who they are or who they love. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would provide strong federal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers. Last year, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed ENDA, and the President renews his call for the House to do the same."
Reached for comment, White House spokesman Shin Inouye reiterated verbatim the passage on ENDA in the fact sheet put out by the White House, adding, "The State of the Union isn't a comprehensive list of all of the President's positions or priorities."
[Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.]