Obama's course correction shifts dynamic

Updated: 2012-02-16 14:46


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President Barack Obama's opposition is now the divided one.

For three weeks of heated rhetoric, Republicans cast the president's new rule that religious schools and hospitals must provide insurance for free birth control to their employees as an attack on individual liberty. The contentious issue united recently fractured Republicans, Catholic bishops and religious groups while badly splitting Democrats who feared an election-year fallout.

Obama's leading GOP rivals — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — had sensed a political opening and were relentless in criticizing the president.

Obama caved to the pressure Friday, announcing a compromise that allows employees at religious-affiliated institutions to get free contraception directly from health insurance companies rather than employers who say it would violate their long-held convictions.

Almost immediately, Democrats who had disagreed with the White House backed the revised policy. So did Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States and a crucial player in both this debate and the fierce fight over Obama's health care overhaul law. The nation's bishops renewed their call for passage of legislation that would allow a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services, based on religious beliefs.

The once formidable coalition against the president had splintered. Factions that had stood with the GOP cautiously backed Obama's midcourse correction. It was a necessary policy change that reversed the political dynamic.

"After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option, that we needed to move this faster," Obama said in announcing his retreat and compromise.

The comment was a clear acknowledgment that his administration needed to move away quickly from an all-consuming battle that pitted Obama against the Catholic Church, hardly the fight a president wants to pick when he's seeking another term.

"At the end of the day, Church one, White House zero," said Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist and White House political adviser in George W. Bush's administration.

The policy and the fury underscored the difficulty for the administration in implementing elements of Obama's sweeping health care law, which remains highly divisive nearly two years after it became law and within months of the Supreme Court rendering its judgment sometime in late spring. It reflected the nervousness among congressional Democrats and candidates who want to avoid alienating working-class voters and suburban women critical to their fate this November.

The initial policy had drawn opposition from Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, all Catholic and all facing re-election this year. Challenging the administration was Tim Kaine, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the Senate candidate in Virginia and a Catholic who worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras.

There was palpable relief among several with the president's announcement.

"I am pleased that the White House has taken further steps to ensure that all women have access to affordable contraception and to ensure that religious organizations will not be asked to violate their beliefs in the process," Kaine said in a statement.

Larson praised the president for finding a "path forward to provide coverage to everyone while addressing the conscience concerns of religiously affiliated organizations."

Manchin and Casey held off on a final assessment, saying they were looking at the details.

Before announcing the decision, Obama called Keehan, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, head of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops. Keehan was key in a fight that turned out to be health care redux. Two years ago, her support for the health care law in the face of the bishops' opposition helped sway several conservative and moderate anti-abortion Democrats to back the legislation, votes that lifted the bill into law.

On Friday, shortly after Obama's White House appearance, Keehan issued a statement: "The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions. The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed."

Mo Elleithee, who worked on Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign, said the administration can argue that in a dysfunctional, highly partisan Washington, the president found a way to compromise.

"I think what he did today was one of those great examples of good policy and good politics," Elleithee said. "A lot of people wanted to turn this into a war between women's rights and religious liberties. As long as that narrative existed, it wasn't good for the White House. The solution allows him to show commitment to contraceptives for women and sensitivity to religious liberty and maybe most importantly compromise while finding a win-win solution."

Republicans vowed to continue to fight, looking to push legislation in the House and possibly the Senate on religious liberty. Even if the measures stand little chance, it would force Democrats to cast a vote in an election year. They also signaled that they will argue the issue on economic terms, contending that free birth control coverage will mean increased health care premiums for many Americans.

"The administration promised during debate on the health care law that constitutional rights would not be infringed and that costs would go down," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We now know that's not true."

Obama already knows his opposition in that battle.