Wednesday, February 15, 2012

His Deftness Left Him: Obama's mistake on the contraceptive mandate

Perhaps Obama should have taken the vice-president's advice over Sebelius'.

Six months ago, things looked grim for the president’s reelection prospects. Obama seemed politically impotent after the summer’s lose-lose battle over raising the debt ceiling; speculation was rampant that the U.S. economy might be headed for a double-dip recession; unemployment hovered above 9%; Obama’s approval rating was mired in the low 40s.
            This last fact I take as the ultimate proof of Obama’s enormous political acumen. With such a disastrous set of circumstances, and after having more abuse heaped upon him than any modern president, what else could account for such a relatively high approval rating? I would suggest it was his deft approach to the job: take calculated risks, remain even-keel in the face of setbacks and criticism, know when to press the gas and when to let up.
            Presently, the same equanimity, reasonableness, and patience that kept Obama’s prospects afloat during the worst times make him the presumptive favorite in November. After a steady stream of positive economic data and a bruising fight for the Republican nomination, Obama’s approval is at 50% in some recent polls, and he leads all of the remaining GOP contenders in head-to-head match ups.
            So what explains this preternaturally deft politician’s grave misjudgment on the contraceptive mandate? The administration’s original decision not to exempt Catholic institutions like hospitals and charities gave substance to what had been a reflexive and hollow critique of Obama-style liberalism: any expanded government role in society—even when it helps ensure health care for more people—will inevitably lead to the infringement of your individual liberties. With the announcement of the original HHS rule, even Catholic liberals wholly sympathetic to the goal of expanding access to contraception cried foul—loudly. Could Obama and his team really not see this coming?
            Andrew Sullivan suggested recently in Newsweek that all of this may have been a trap: goad the conservatives into pouncing on an issue ultimately not in their favor, then quickly retreat to a reasonable compromise position that the vast majority of the public finds acceptable. Certainly, if the general election is about culture war issues, Obama will have the advantage. And after reading James Fallow’s thorough and complex analysis of Obama’s first term performance, in which he makes a strong case for Obama as chess master (one he doesn’t himself definitively endorse), it certainly gives me pause.
            But I hope Sullivan is wrong. If this was political gamesmanship, it was archly cynical—even if it worked brilliantly. Did Obama really anticipate the ire this decision would raise among a Catholic left that has defended him so vociferously? Did he really think a modest long term advantage was worth it to so anger a valued group of supporters? It’s unlikely.
            I’m inclined to think Obama simply misread the tea leaves. He probably thought that with studies showing a vast majority of Catholic women using birth control, and the public broadly supporting access to the same, he couldn’t really lose. His miscalculation was that, while for the Catholic Bishops this was about contraception, for most of us who were shocked by the original policy, it was about religious freedom—or even more, a basic respect for religious institutions and their guiding principles. Catholic hospitals and charities do copious good. Let them operate according to the dictates of their consciences.
            One nice upshot of the contraceptive mandate imbroglio is that a broad coalition, transcending ideology, party, and even sect, was able to effect change quickly and decisively. (Even if the Bishops aren’t satisfied, most of us are.) My regrets about this campaign are these: first, that it doesn't happen more often on issues of social justice, and second, that a president I admire provided the impetus with a shocking lapse of deftness.

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