Barack Obama's brilliant play on birth control

Barack Obama is a transformative president who has far-reaching policy triumphs and who has never been afraid to take the political risk to do the right thing. But he is also the man whose political acumen has Republicans scared. Even post the GOP electoral gains of 2010, President Obama wrapped the Republicans in their own petard, so to speak, and won policy as well as political victories over the GOP on the debt ceiling fight, on instituting and extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, and even on some parts of his jobs agenda.

Here comes another one: birth control. The beltway media thinks that it's a public relations disaster for the Administration for applying the law as it has been over more than a decade (only difference being under the Affordable Care Act, it is now free - h/t blackinthebuilding in the comments) and trying to protect the religious freedom of employees of religion-affiliated civil institutions from the religious dicta of their employers. Catholic bishops (who are at odds with the majority of American Catholics) are demanding for their Church-run (but non-church) public civil institutions the ability to shirk laws every other employer has to abide by. But as Rachel Maddow said last night, there is another way to look at this:

Contraceptives are, as Rachel points out, far more a women's issue than a Catholic/religious issue. 99% of sexually experienced women have used contraceptives, and 98% of Catholic sexually experienced women have, too. Thanks to this universal use of birth control, we just found out today that teen pregnancy and abortion rates are at a record low. The Republican position would raise the barrier to women for obtaining birth control, and women are not likely to stand by and let that happen. Women's health care defenders are not limited to the Democratic party, either.
“I think this week’s outrage over the Komen decision should be a warning to the Republican party about how quickly there was a mass outrage over further and further attacks on general women’s health,” Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice, told me Wednesday. “You could see the same backlash on attacks on contraception.”

Ferguson calls the Republican rhetoric on contraception “crossing the line” — taking the discussion away from choice issues (where Republicans can find some broader, if still national minority constituency) and into the realm of the fringy extreme.

“For the last number of years, we in the pro-choice community in general — and we specifically as Republicans — have been saying as this pandering to a sort of social conservative faction of voters continues, you’re going to see the line pushed further and further and further,” she said. “And we’re now crossing the line from discussion of when we should regulate abortion to when we should now regulate legal doctor-prescribed medications like birth control, which is woven in the fabric of society as an acceptable medication.”
These are Republican, pro-choice women finally standing up to their own party's destructive agenda to sacrifice women's health priorities at the alter of a sick notion that, as my friend rootless_e pointed out on Twitter, women employed by religiously-affiliated civil institutions are chattel for their employers. Just as nearly every woman in America, these women are drawing a line against the GOP attack on a basic health care need for women: birth control.

Americans are rightly protective of our freedom of (and from) religion. But we keenly understand that such freedom applies to individuals, and not to the claimed ability of Churches to ignore the law in the public, civil institutions they run that take money just as well from non-Catholics and people who have no interest in the religion. Media Matters reports on a new poll out today showing exactly that: strong majorities of Americans supporting the requirement that employer provided insurance plans include birth control as preventive care. In fact, American Catholics, in sound rejection of the position of the Church, agree even more strongly.

Support among women is more than likely even higher. I suspect the politically astute Obama was well aware of these statistics before his administration took the right decision. The President and his team also know:

  • Not only does he have a majority support from Americans and American Catholics in general on this issue, even Republicans don't speak with one voice on this, as we have seen above. In fact, the GOP kerfuffle will only reflect on the extremism of the current GOP, as opposed to the Republican party of even a decade ago, when a bunch of Republican senators cosponsored a bill to establish parity for contraceptives in health plans and provided no exemptions for religiously affiliated civil institutions.
  • Mitt Romney's protestations on this only exposes his flip-flopping history. As late as 2005, Romney required health plans in Massachusetts to do the same thing.
  • Even in the reddest of the red states, attacks on women's health and body parts and attempts by a collusion of states and churches to practice medicine on women have failed, and failed spectacularly. And wouldn't you know it, a big part of that spectacular failure was... the fact that these "personhood" amendments would likely outlaw birth control.
  • The Catholic Church can cause a media frenzy, and the Republican candidates can exploit this nontroversy for their internal "who's more into a 12th century Europe" contest, but (a) this is not the issue that will decide the election and (b) it will only bring more women to vote for Obama.
Plainly put, you don't screw with birth control, even if you are the Catholic Church.

Yet, what are the headlines you see today in the beltway media? It's all about how the GOP is smelling blood and has found an issue they can pick a fight with the Obama administration on in an election year. Do you really think that the President was unaware that the GOP would try to exploit this? I don't think so. In fact, one could intelligently deduce that the strategy of announcing this rule and once the Republicans started screaming, of letting them ratchet it up is precisely in order to expose the modern day Republican party as the instigators of "personhood" for fertilized eggs and opponents of birth control.

Remember how the President won the other battles I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The first step was always - to the impatient whining of many - to expose the extremism of the GOP. The first step was always to lay their extreme philosophies bare in front of the American people while being open to reasonable compromise that in no way sacrifices the most important principles for the president (in this case, protecting women's access to health care). The President has followed the same method on every one of these fights: let the GOP scream, take up the mantle of reasonable-ness, and expose the GOP for who they are: reactionary social radicals who cannot be trusted. He hands them enough rope and then puts them in a corner.

And what do you think the President is doing now? You see Obama surrogates talking about being open about 'resolving' this with a reasonable compromise, but not once backing off their commitment to protecting women's access to birth control. In the mean time, the Republican field of candidates and the extremist members of Congress are openly going after women's health care. This is textbook Obama: the GOP is now being handed rope while the President takes up the role of the only adult in the room. The Republicans are too busy boxing themselves into a corner against women's health to notice what is going on underneath the media headlines in the real American mainstream.

From the inception of the Obama presidency - no, the Obama candidacy - the Republican party has continuously made the same mistake. In their hatred of President Obama - driven in equal parts by his policies and his skin color - and in their zeal to pander to the extremists in their own midst, they have forgotten that there is a real America outside of the bubble that they call the modern GOP. That there are real people in that real America who want their government to do its job so they can get and do their jobs. That those people care about health care for themselves, their parents, their husbands, their wives, their brothers, their sisters, their sons, their daughters.

President Obama has not forgotten that fact. President Obama knows who he's fighting for. And President Obama is brilliant once again on showing the American people the ugly truth about extremist Republican party.

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