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Obama Birth Control Revision An Effort To Pull Allies Back Into Fold

Feb 10, 2012

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Reported by

Frank James

After a week of reaping the political whirlwind stemming from its initial birth-control health-insurance rule, the Obama Administration was clearly in clean-up mode Friday with President Obama going before cameras in the White House press briefing room to announce the modified rule.

The revision was a response to religious leaders, specifically Catholic bishops, who expressed outrage with the initial rule that mandated that religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities provide workers, as part of their health-insurance coverage, contraceptives at no cost.

With so much criticism coming not just from clerics and Republican political opponents, who attacked the policy as an assault on religious freedom, but even some of the administration's liberal allies, it was obvious Obama would need to find a compromise and quick. His key political strategist, David Axelrod, seemed to admit as much earlier in the week.

The new policy will still mandate that women who work for such religiously affiliated institutions get their birth-control products with no out-of-pocket costs. The insurance companies instead of the institutions will pay.

That accommodation isn't enough to still some critics, including the president's political opponents, who show no signs of giving any quarter on an issue he served up to them:

Proving the point, Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner issued the following statement:

"The Catholic Church and others in our nation's religious community are not yet convinced the president's mandate doesn't constitute an attack on religious freedom, which has been a fundamental American right for more than 200 years. It's clear that these organizations were not included in developing the so-called compromise offered today. The president should take up the Bishops' offer to find a resolution that respects all Americans' Constitutional rights. In the meantime, the House of Representatives, led by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will continue to work toward a legislative solution that achieves that same goal."

The revised policy was meant more to win back the president's progressive Catholic allies like senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Tim Kaine of Virginia, the former governor, and columnist E.J. Dionne who had expressed unhappiness with the prior policy.

Those policymakers were only a few of the representative faces of a large population of U.S. Catholics, especially in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa who were incensed by the initial decision.

The president had to thread a political needle, however. Even as he found a solution that would give his unhappy allies a reason to decrease their opposition, he also couldn't back away from his overarching commitment that women working for religiously affiliated institutions have the same access to birth control as those working for other employers.

To retreat from that commitment would have revived the progressive criticism that the president has a tendency to fold to his conservative opposition. That's not the takeaway a president hoping to energize his base wants to leave hanging out there.

Fortunately for the president, this dust-up happened early enough in the election year where it's likely to be overtaken by other events and, daresay, controversies.

Obama also is fortunate in that he seems to have a sizable portion of the public on his side. According to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, 55 percent of Americans supported the idea of a mandate that employers provide women with birth control with no out-of-pocket costs to the employees while 52 percent of Catholics agreed with this.

Of course, no one at this point can say exactly how this controversy will play out politically. As Beth Reinhard at the National Journal writes, it all has to do with which side wins the message spin war. If Republicans can make it all about religious liberty and the First Amendment, that could provide the GOP with an edge.

On the other hand, women voters and young voters tend to skew Democratic and the issue of reproductive freedom is important to many of these voters. So if Democrats can persuade voters that religious liberty wasn't at risk but women's health and well-being was, that message could eventually win out.

And let us not forget the bases of both parties. The controversy has given each party one more message it can use to stir enthusiasm to improve the turnout of its supporters come November.

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