President Barack Obama promised in his State of the Union a year of action on the economy and environment, equality and immigration — and he said he’s ready to leave Congress in the dust to reach the administration’s goals.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” the president said on Jan. 28. “So whatever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Progressives responded with enthusiasm, but criticized Obama’s decision not to do even more with executive orders. The long list of planned executive actions isn’t long enough, said civil rights advocates, who for years have called on the president to sign an order protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers employed under federal contracts. In 2008, when he campaigned for the White House, Obama promised such an order.
In his speech, the president vowed executive action to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for those employed under new federal contracts, but a White House outline on the State of the Union listed LGBT workplace discrimination under “continuing to work with Congress.”
That’s not likely to be successful unless the midterm elections send a majority of Democrats to the House. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, passed in the U.S. Senate last fall, but Republican House
Speaker John Boehner repeatedly has said there’s no way the bill will advance in the House.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said Obama’s SOTU message “failed to address the needs of LGBT workers look- ing for a fair shake in this economy. Not only was there no call for the House to pass a federal law to protect LGBT workers nationwide, President Obama also side- stepped his commitment to take action where Congress has left off, leaving out an order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors.”
“I’m thrilled that President Obama is raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, finally leading by example and taking concrete steps to help address income inequality,” said Heather Cronk of the direct-action group GetEqual. “However, I’m disappointed, saddened and offended that the president ... refuses to take similar executive action to end discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by federal contractors.”
Others in the progressive community also said they were thrilled but disappointed. Why, for example, won’t the president take executive action to halt deportations, which skyrocketed during his first term, leading some immigration reform advocates to refer to him as deporter-in-chief.
“We applaud President Obama’s pro- posed minimum wage hike in the fight against income inequality and for economic justice for the working poor,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Voces de la Frontera. This, she said, shows the president can use executive action to “achieve victories for the people who elected him in the face of obstruction by the most unpopular Congress in history.”
She called on Obama to “do the same with today’s deportation crisis, and use his legal executive authority to provide real relief for America’s immigrant families, who are being torn apart at historic levels since he took office campaigning on federal immigration reform.”
Environmentalists also said the president fell short in his pledges. “President Obama says he recognizes the threat of climate change, but he sure doesn’t act like it,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, the green group that has organized massive demonstrations against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
“You can’t say you care about ending cancer and then go buy a carton of cigarettes — and you can’t say you care about the climate and then go dig up more fossil fuels,” Boeve said. “We need real leadership from this president, not more lip service. Rejecting the Keystone XL would be the perfect place to start.”
At the Center for Biological Diversity, Kieran Suckling said the president’s “‘year of action’ rightly includes climate change, but his plans for fighting carbon pollution just aren’t bold enough or big enough to head off disaster. Unless President Obama changes course, he will help usher in an era of climate chaos.”
Leaders in the Republican Party, mean- while, said Obama would create a different type of chaos if he attempted to do too much with executive action. “The president must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the authority he has doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy,” Boehner said.
Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed to this story.