Michael Tomasky: Contraception Storm Shows Obama Fumbling Politically

The president will escape his administration’s ham-handed response to its ruling on Catholic institutions and birth control largely intact—but only because Republicans are now on the cusp of equating contraception with abortion.

02.11.12 9:45 AM ET

The contraception controversy has made me think of no one so much as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What’s that I say? I mean that the slow-footed political response by the administration to something that was obviously a political problem reminded me directly of the controversy from Barack Obama’s first year in office over whether KSM should be tried in a civilian court or a military tribunal. In that case, as in this one, the administration didn’t think things through, made an announcement, watched passively for a while as protest built, and then backtracked. Why does this keep happening? I have to conclude that it’s because Obama has some lousy political instincts. He’s only lucky that there’s one group of people—his opponents—whose instincts are often even worse.

The KSM case is instructive here. It was a very big and much-anticipated decision. And it was one on which the administration didn’t do its homework properly. Jane Mayer laid all this out in The New Yorker at the time. Hours before Attorney General Eric Holder went public with his decision, Mayer wrote, the administration reached out to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson, and Sen. Chuck Schumer. They signed off. Then the storm hit, and they withdrew their support. The administration could not have controlled that. However, Mayer noted, the “Obama Administration’s political preparations for a controversial trial were less thorough than those made by previous Administrations. In 1995, Justice Department officials spent months laying the groundwork for trying the bomber Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. Detailed cost estimates were made, and there was extensive outreach to local officials, victims’ families, and security personnel. (Ultimately, a judge ordered the trial moved to Colorado.) By comparison, local officials in New York have said that they were only glancingly consulted.”

We know that in the current case, even Catholic progressives and supporters of the administration felt underconsulted. Maybe the administration had in the back of its collective mind the recent contretemps over the decision about the availability of the Plan B contraception pill. In that case, when the administration went against the women’s groups, it was they who felt underconsulted! And, yes, any clumsy administration tap dance makes me think of the debt-ceiling debacle, when Democrats on the Hill felt underconsulted, and undercut, as Obama, apparently at David Plouffe’s urging, made overtures to Speaker John Boehner about a “grand bargain” involving entitlements that the Democrats wanted no part of.

What unites these episodes? It’s not the team. One was handled by Justice, and it took place back when David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel were in charge of the politics. The two involving the Department of Health and Human Servies were more recent, as was the debt-ceiling debate. But the passage of time suggests it’s not the political team making these misjudgments. We know in the current case that Joe Biden and Bill Daley gave very clear warnings that this would kick up dust. So it must, on some level, be Obama himself.

There seem to be two problems here. First, I think Obama still somehow can’t believe, won’t believe, that political actors will deal with him in bad faith. He was gobsmacked right after he took office by the GOP’s nearly united opposition to his stimulus bill. With regard to the debt ceiling, he famously said that he believed that once Boehner and the Republicans shared governing duties, they’d act in the responsible way. It seemed he’d learned something from that, and he probably did, at least with regard to Republicans on the Hill. But maybe he thought this was somehow different—that he’d have a little bit of good will in the bank from the Catholic bishops because of the Plan B decision. Sure.

Second, there’s just basic political fumbling that is awfully hard to understand. It’s particularly mystifying that the administration didn’t nail down the support of Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association. She’s been an administration ally on health care. She’s fine with today’s language. Even the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a semi-supportive statement Friday afternoon. (Though later in the day, they sounded much more critical.) But it’s malpractice that it had to happen this way, and you have to wonder why there wasn’t more legwork here. In his excellent piece in the new Atlantic, James Fallows gets to two possible explanations. Obama is aloof and solitary; he just doesn’t enjoy having to talk to a lot of people. Number two, he doesn’t demand enough of his staff. We don’t know a lot of the backstory here, but it wouldn’t exactly be shocking to find that both of these factors were present.

The only fortunate thing for the White House is that the Republicans are often even more ham-handed than he. Let’s give the GOP the win on KSM. Other than that, they always contrive to find a way to come out of these battles looking even worse than the White House. Congressional approval after the debt fracas hit record lows. And now they’re doing their best to turn a positive narrative for them—Obama hates religious freedom—into a negative one by declaring war on contraception. This is a lot worse politically than where Obama finds himself today. In their inimitable style, they are now on the cusp of equating contraception, which 99 percent of women of child-bearing age use, with abortion. Brilliant. But hey: keep at it, fellas!

The success of this new rule depends on the insurers going along. We’ll see. There may be legal challenges. And of course there is now legislation brewing that would seemingly let any employer, not just religious institutions, refuse to cover contraceptive services. They just have to say it’s for religious reasons. It may well pass the House, get a lot of votes in the Senate, including at least one Democrat and keep this alive as a wedge issue heading toward November.

As I say, I think for now Obama will escape this one more or less intact. People who rely on contraception—you know, humans with reproductive organs—are alas underrepresented in the chattering class, while Catholic males happen to be somewhat overrepresented, so said class was bound to fail to give proper weight to women’s views. And we all know by now the poll showing that a majority of even Catholics back the administration’s first position. This is one of those cases, like the Monica Lewinsky situation, when the punditocracy is speaking for itself more than for America.

But it’s sad, and maddening, that Obama isn’t better at this kind of political to and fro. To be the president he wants to be, he is going to have to get better at it. Being right on the merits isn’t what politics is about. Being a leader is about a lot more than that.