Vice President Joseph Biden said in an interview with The Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery on Thursday he sees “no downside” to President Obama’s signing an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.
Although Biden said passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would be a better approach to combatting anti-LGBT discrimination because passage of the legislation “ends it everywhere,” his comments on the executive order raise a question: Will it be enough to push Obama, who has withheld the order despite calls from LGBT advocates, to sign the directive?
Richard Socarides, a New York-based gay advocate, was among those wondering if Biden’s latest remarks would be a catalyst for Obama to take action.
“It’s hard to know what the delay is,” Socarides said. “Maybe Biden’s remarks will help. But at this point, it’s hard to know.”
After all, when Biden appeared to endorse marriage equality in April 2012 on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama concluded his evolution on the issue himself just three days later in a TV interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to endorse same-sex marriage.
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said Biden has proved to be a bellweather on LGBT issues before and “so perhaps this is a sign that the administration is finally moving in that direction.”
“It’s also possibly a sign that Biden is being Biden and saying something out of school,” Aravosis said. “I think we always need more fuel — clearly, the administration hasn’t done the executive order, and until they do, we need more fuel.”
The White House didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on whether Biden’s words mark any change in position for the administration. During periodic requests for comment on the issue during news briefings, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said the White House prefers a legislative approach to addressing the issue of LGBT workplace protections.
Not so long ago, Biden made similar comments against LGBT workplace discrimination during a speech at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles, saying the lack of federal non-discrimination protections in the workplace was “close to barbaric.” Although Biden omitted any mention of the executive order from the speech in March, he called on Congress to immediately pass ENDA.
Mark Daley, spokesperson for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said the views his organization articulated after those remarks remain the same now that Biden has explicitly dismissed any concerns about the executive order.
“As we saw with marriage equality, Vice President Biden is sometimes the person who will preview a presidential decision,” Daley said. “So let’s hope his most recent comments means that a non-discrimination executive order is imminent from President Obama.”
Meanwhile, LGBT advocates pounced on Biden’s remarks as an opportunity to reiterate that both passage of ENDA and the signing of an executive order is necessary to institute protections for LGBT workers at the same level that they exist for other categories of workers, such as race, religion and gender.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of ENDA in the Senate and one of the biggest proponents of the executive order, echoed the sense via Twitter there’s no downside to the executive order.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) April 30, 2014
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Biden’s remarks demonstrate the potential impact of the executive order is known by senior administration officials.
“The vice president’s comments are further compelling proof that the importance of the executive order is understood at the highest levels of the administration,” Sainz said. “The executive order and ENDA protect LGBT workers in two very different ways. This has never been a question of one over the other. We need both.”
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Biden has resumed his “reoccurring role as the White House’s inconvenient truth teller” by saying there’s no downside to the executive order.
“No matter if Jay Carney incorrectly calls the policy ‘redundant’ or other officials invent excuses for delay, the vice president is right that there’s no downside,” Almeida said. “In fact, in an election year where Democrats need to fire up the base, there’s actually political upside that combines with the greater good of being on the right side of history just like Presidents FDR and Eisenhower who signed federal contractor executive orders before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.”
Almeida, pointing to a graphic his organization made on Biden last year, added that as Pride month approaches in June, expectations among LGBT advocates will increase that this policy will finally happen.
But not all LGBT advocates are drawing on the Biden comments to double-down on their call for an executive order and are instead refocusing on ENDA.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who’s gay and chief sponsor of ENDA in the U.S. House, turned attention to the legislation that continues to languish in the Republican-controlled House, but said he continues to support the executive order.
“The best way to ensure that all Americans are judged by the quality of their work, not who they love, is for the House to pass the bipartisan Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which currently has 203 cosponsors,” Polis said. “Until that happens, I have and will continue to urge the president to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination of LGBT employees by federal contractors.”