Obama Contraception Backtrack: Smart Politics or Screwup?

Does the president come away looking like a chessmaster or a pawn?

obama contraception
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
By |

James Fallows has a tremendous longread essay in The Atlantic examining competing narratives about the Obama presidency. Is he a) "a chessmaster," a deeply strategic politician who is constantly thinking three and four steps ahead of his rivals and the media? Or b) "a pawn," an all-too-human politician with middling executive skills who is buffeted by political and economic forces outside of his control? 

The current dustup over contraception coverage can be viewed through either lens.

The realtime evolution of this story points to the "pawn" narrative.

Here are the optics: The White House announces a new rule that will require all employers, including Catholic hospitals, to pay for contraception through their health-insurance plans. The move is celebrated by women's health groups, but angers not only conservative Catholics who oppose contraception under any circumstances, but a broader religious community that interprets the move as a bureaucratic assault on religious freedom. The White House, recognizing that it has fouled up big time, backtracks and rewrites the rule so that insurance companies will be forced to swallow the costs of contraception coverage for employers who object as a matter of conscience.

An open-and-shut case of political malpractice. Right?

But let's scratch deeper here. What is the long-game impact of this dustup, point by point?

1) With the original rule, the White House communicated to its base of progressive women voters: Women's health cannot be subordinated to narrow religious views. We're with you. We get it.

2) The predictable overreaction of the religious right in attacking not only this rule, but women's health rights more broadly, showcased for the same base of progressive women voters: The religious right is still out there. They still want to control your body. You can't be complacent this election.

3) This hoses Mitt Romney. Romney's pitch to voters as an employment Mr. Fix-it has already been undercut by the improving economy. By shifting the national conversation to contraception – and by highlighting that Romney himself instituted the same kind of religiously intrusive policy in Massachusetts (as Obama campaign spokesman Ben Labolt did yesterday) – the White House has trained the focus of the GOP primary campaign squarely on the gap between Romney and social conservatives. 

4) By reacting nimbly (by Washington standards) to come up with a solution that protects women's health while allowing for religious objections, Obama says to anyone who is paying attention to this drama: I'm listening; I'm responsive; We hear you. 

5) The wedge issue lives ... and continues to hurt the GOP. Social conservatives are now rallying around Rick Santorum, who is himself devoutly anti-contraception: "It's not okay," he's said. "It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be." On the trail today he's been saying that birth control "shouldn’t be in an insurance plan anyway."

If this were a political mistake, Barack Obama seems impossibly lucky to have stumbled into it. Every repercussion is redounding to his favor. 

Now consider this through the lens of the "chessmaster" narrative.

This is an overblown controversy. Even in its original Catholic-hospital offending form, the rule was popular, garnering 61 percent support in a Fox News poll, and 58 percent support among independents. The only groups where majorities disapproved were Republicans (57%) and Tea Partiers (71%). 

With today's changes, reasonable critics of the original rule are mollified. To fence sitters, it seems a reasonable compromise. If women's health advocates are still up in arms, that anger is directed at religious conservatives who forced the change, not the president who stuck his neck out for them.

In his own take on the chessmaster narrative, Andrew Sullivan has a tidier metaphor for Obama. He's the Roadrunner and his opponents are, like Wiley E. Coyote, constantly running full speed out over a cliff. 

Meep! Meep!

x