Identity Politics Moment: Obama’s Very Public Planned Parenthood Embrace

Obama’s bold move to align himself squarely with the group could pay dividends with single women voters, reports Allison Yarrow.

Andrew Burton

Unlike Planned Parenthood’s most diehard supporters, President Barack Obama didn’t need to wear the pink shirt or hand out condoms or packages of birth control. All he had to do was repeat their name.

At the Town Hall debate Tuesday, Obama mentioned the group four times—each one paired with a mention of Romney’s vow to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider that also delivers an array of other reproductive health services—as 65.6 million viewers watched on television and millions more did so online.

For Planned Parenthood Action Fund President, Cecile Richards, who has taken a short leave to stump for the president, and many of her board members, staffers and volunteers who work on what she called “the hostile front lines” of women’s healthcare, the cheerleading from a sitting president was a watershed moment.

“Never in their life would they imagine Planned Parenthood would be mentioned with such pride by a president speaking to millions, praising the work of Planned Parenthood,” Richards said. “This has longterm consequences. This is a day to remember.”

Presidential historian Gil Troy said the president’s gambit was remarkable both for the rareness of a president choosing and naming one women’s group, and for its combativeness—each mention coupled with a reminder that Mitt Romney has vowed to strip Planned Parenthood of its federal funding.

“Usually the candidate’s instinct is to broaden or dilute or avoid trouble,” said the McGill University history professor and author of many books on presidential politics, including Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. “This was intensifying, raising the stakes of the idea and the relationship.”

Obama’s very public embrace of Planned Parenthood “does indicate a shift in the political climate—that the president and others now think associating themselves very publicly with Planned Parenthood is favorable in the public eye,” said Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and the former longtime president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

“The women’s community has rightly felt they did not get credit they deserved for how cooperative they were in the health care reform effort,” Kissling continued, alluding to how Planned Parenthood and other groups gave up on the prospect of federal abortion funding to help Democrats craft a version of the Affordable Care Act that could reach the president’s desk.

“The President feels Planned Parenthood has been very supportive of him. He is paying them back,” she said.

Democrats have seized on Republican actions like a house budget designed to eliminate federal family planning dollars, an attempt to allow employers to decide not to provide insurance that covers birth control and bumbling remarks from prominent party members about legitimate rape and women as sluts to frame the GOP as waging a war on women. It is a message that’s resonated with single women who use birth control, owe student loans, and earn for themselves alone—and favor the president by nearly 20 points.

“Now Planned Parenthood is as popular as Big Bird,” said Kissling, repeating one of Obama’s debate lines (that was also echoed by Richards)—that Romney’s fuzzy budget balancing has few specifics other than gutting Planned Parenthood and PBS (read: women, children).

In a line straight from Planned Parenthood’s talking points, Obama framed women’s issues as economic issues and stressed that the organization Romney would defund does much more than abortions and birth control.

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“Millions of women rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings,” the President said at one point in the debate. Later, he added: “These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.

With Obama elevating her group, Richards has returned the favor by aiming her fire directly at Romney, ripping his “1950s attitude toward Candy Crowley,” the debate moderator who the Republican repeatedly argued with and interrupted.

And Richards scoffed at Romney’s attempt to strike a more moderate note on abortion as he tries to court general election voters, “People defending Romney never defend his positions. They simply say they don’t matter. No one defends his position on overturning Roe v. Wade, or defunding Planned Parenthood. They just dismiss them with the same condescension he has.”

But as Planned Parenthood has seen its profile elevated by the president, Obama in turn has helped to frame himself for women, and particularly single women, who are one of the most reliably Democratic slices of the electorate.

“This is one of Obama’s identity politics moments,” said Troy. “It is about who am I, who Mitt Romney is, and who we as the American people want to be.”