The gay-rights cause Obama can actually do something about
On Wednesday, President Obama declared his evolution complete. In an interview with ABC News he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Gay-rights groups rejoiced; conservative groups scolded. But what the president thinks about gay marriage is, ultimately, symbolic. There is a different issue on which Obama could achieve real, tangible results for gays and lesbians, and gain electoral advantage over Mitt Romney: employment discrimination.
Obama has already done everything he can on gay marriage. His administration has declared the federal law banning gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), to be discriminatory and declined to defend it in court. He has extended spousal benefits to the domestic partners of federal employees. Marriage laws, on the other hand, are written at the state level. Even a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, which Romney supports and Obama already opposed, is not actually signed by the president.
Meanwhile, it is still legal in 29 states to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring and firing employees, and in an additional five it is legal to discriminate against transgender people. There has been a Democratic bill floating around Congress called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend the federal protections of the Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Thus far Obama has said he supports the legislation, but has not called much attention to it.
Instead he’s spoken out on gay marriage, which may come with some political costs in November. It is preposterous to assert, as many political pundits do, that black voters will be receptive to attacks on Obama over gay marriage. Polling shows blacks have become roughly equal to whites in their acceptance of gay marriage. Obama enjoys high approval ratings among black voters, and they agree with him more than with Romney on every other issue. They are also accustomed to voting for more socially liberal politicians, just as wealthy pro-choice Republicans have accepted that they must vote for anti-abortion-rights candidates.
But perhaps it could hurt Obama at the margins among certain key demographics that lean against gay marriage, such as working-class white voters in the Midwest or Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Meanwhile Democrats in socially conservative states who face a tough re-election fight, such as Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), are surely seething at the attack ad Obama just handed their opponents.
ENDA, by contrast, is a political winner. Protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace is an easier sell because social moderates can more readily see how sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s ability to do his or her job. Two of the main reasons people oppose gay marriage – the ick factor and religious beliefs – do not apply to workplace equality, at least not as much. In April 2011 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research polled likely 2012 voters and found 73 percent support for protecting gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination. The support was incredibly widespread: 81 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents and 66 percent of Republicans.
Opponents of ENDA are confined to the socially conservative, mostly elderly base of the GOP. They will not vote for Obama anyway. It is also much easier to paint opponents of ENDA as intolerant, or at least woefully out of touch. Romney said in 1994, when he was running for a Senate seat as a liberal in Massachusetts, that he would co-sponsor ENDA if he won. Luckily for him, he lost and never had to keep that promise. In 2007 he said he would oppose ENDA. Since then he hasn’t spoken about it, and his campaign has declined to comment when asked.
But the religious right wants Romney to come out strongly against ENDA. Just last week Romney’s foreign policy spokesman, Richard Grenell, quit because he was being criticized by religious-right leaders for being gay and felt the Romney campaign wasn’t supporting him. Bryan Fischer, the evangelical activist and talk-radio host who began the snowball of criticism of Grenell, told me that he wants Romney to pledge to veto ENDA if Congress passes it.
If Obama gave a campaign speech in which he called on Congress to pass ENDA and demanded that Romney do the same, he would stick Romney between a rock and a hard place. Romney would risk offending his base by saying that he would sign the law. But if he promised to veto it, he would risk alienating the upscale, moderate suburban swing voters he must court to win the general election.
Democrats didn’t pass ENDA when they held the majority, because many liberals wanted to include transgender people among those protected. (The legal language to make this change is to protect “gender identity” as well as sexual orientation.) For Democrats in more conservative states and districts, that’s a harder sell. To moderates, Obama can simply say that he would like to see the broadest protections possible in the bill, but he will sign a pared-down version if it comes to his desk. Civil-rights progress has always come in smaller steps than would be ideal. Workplace protections often precede more sensitive ones such as marriage, and acceptance of gays will precede acceptance for people who are transgender, even though they all deserve protection.
In any case, that’s a compromise he may not have to make. The polls show wide support for passing ENDA with protections for transgender people. If the activist and media pressure that was brought to bear on Obama over gay marriage is applied to Congress over ENDA, the measure could conceivably pass and extend civil-rights law to everyone. That would be a highly evolved outcome.