02.09.12

Did Obama Administration Pick a Fight on Birth Control Deliberately?

The president is ‘very sensitive’ to concerns about his policy mandating that Catholic institutions provide contraception coverage—but did the administration incite the enraged response to fire up young liberal voters?

Could the administration have done anything to avoid the firestorm over its ruling that Catholic institutions provide birth-control coverage to employees? “Avoid it?” says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. “The presumption of the word is that this is politically damaging. This is a pro-birth-control country.” While the views of those who oppose contraception must be respected, he says, it shouldn’t be done by denying coverage to women who work for Catholic-affiliated hospitals, universities, and charities, and who may or may not follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Garin has a point, but if the issue were simply birth control, the White House wouldn’t be looking for a way to take the edge off its policy while still ensuring universal access to contraception at little or no cost. The president is “very sensitive” to concerns about the rule and “wants to find a way to implement it that can allay some of the concerns that have been expressed,” spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. In what the administration would prefer to call “reasonableness” as opposed to compromise, religious institutions will have 18 months, until August 2013, to figure out how to implement the rule. Twenty-eight states are already living with the policy, including Mitt Romney’s home state of Massachusetts and Newt Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, which, unlike the federal mandate, doesn’t exempt churches from providing contraceptive coverage to employees. These state laws require insurers that cover prescription drugs to cover any contraceptive that has been approved by the FDA as well.

Republicans see this as a fight about religious liberty, while Democrats see it as a fight about contraception and women’s health. “If the overwhelming majority of women view contraception as a basic health issue, that’s a place where the church is on thin ice,” says Charlie Cook, a veteran election handicapper. “I haven’t seen any high-quality data, but my hunch is that men won’t vote on this issue, and women will see it as a basic contraception issue. There are places where the church ought to plant the flag, and this isn’t one of them.”

A Public Religion Research Institute poll found that a majority of Americans (55 percent) agree with requiring employers to provide health-care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost, including nearly six in 10 Catholics. A poll conducted for Planned Parenthood has similar findings, with a 53 percent majority of Catholics, and 62 percent of Catholics who identify as independents, favoring the benefit.

The administration may not have fully anticipated the furor that greeted its policy not only among Republicans but among progressive Catholics who support Obama. While similar guidelines exist on the state level, a federal rule is a whole different order of magnitude. When the Tea Party rails against big government, Washington is the target, not local state capitals. In a year when Republicans are running on repealing Obama’s health-care plan, expanding the federal government’s reach into religious institutions was like handing the opposition a stick of dynamite.

The administration wasn’t alone in misreading the power behind women’s health issues and where they intersect with politics. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, a major breast-cancer charity, seeking to end its affiliation with Planned Parenthood, found itself on the receiving end of a massive backlash generated mostly through social media. The uproar forced the resignation of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, who played a key role in Komen’s shift to the right. “Under considerable pressure from pro-life groups to abandon their support of Planned Parenthood, they thought they could do it without causing a ruckus,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. The administration no doubt thought the same thing in pushing through its rule on birth control, notes Galston. “Both were wrong.”

For all the fulminating on cable television about big government trampling on religious liberty, the administration believes it’s got the people in the pews, even if it’s lost the Catholic hierarchy, “and the people in the pews have been going their own way since Pope Paul VI, and they’re not going to stop now,” says Galston. It’s a gamble that could cost Obama some support among Catholics, a swing group of voters in presidential elections, even as it highlights the divide between the president and his GOP rivals.

“They’ve got to get young people jazzed up, and there are very few issues that get young women more jazzed up than contraception.”

With Rick Santorum opposed to contraception and Mitt Romney declaring he would cut family planning from the federal budget, Charlie Cook wonders if the White House deliberately picked this fight now, knowing where it would go. He points out that for all the talk about Republican primary turnout being down, Democrats aren’t that keen on their guy either. The White House says this was not a political decision, that once the nonpartisan, nongovernmental Institute of Medicine recommended that contraceptives be included as part of women’s preventive health care, the die was cast.

“This will in a lot of ways be a faultline in this election,” says Bill Burton, who is with the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The election won’t turn on these kinds of cultural issues, but they can generate emotion and passion. Obama’s job approval is just above 50 percent among younger voters, a group that gave him 66 percent of their vote in 2008. “They’ve got to get young people jazzed up, and there are very few issues that get young women more jazzed up than contraception,” says Cook. Indeed, the Obama campaign website highlights the issue of contraception, along with the fact that it will be free once the Affordable Care Act is implemented.