The Washington Post

President Obama, Catholic leaders and the logic of culture wars

President Obama’s birth control decision has left U.S. Catholic bishops (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Still, the president has not yet dodged the latest bullet in the culture wars he has tried so hard to avoid. U.S. Catholic bishops are opposed to the compromise. GOP candidates are accusing Obama of waging war on religion, teeing up an election-year hot potato that’s likely to stay up in the air for some time. And even if the compromise helps squash the loudest noise around the topic, it didn’t come before members of the president’s own party questioned the wisdom of his call.

How did the president make such a seemingly tone-deaf move in the first place? First, some background: Initially, the administration did not exclude religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals or universities (churches were exempted) from a new rule that will require most employers to provide birth control to their employees at no additional cost. The compromise Friday expanded those organizations that could be exempt, but required that employees receive contraceptive coverage, if they seek it, directly from their insurers at no additional premium.

What we do seem to know about Obama’s decision is who influenced it. Despite the reported objections of certain Catholic male members of his staff, including Vice President Joe Biden and outgoing Chief of Staff Bill Daley, the president sided with female advisers such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and senior consigliore Valerie Jarrett, who urged against a broad exemption for religious organizations.

Bloomberg reports that there was concern among these women not only about leaving too many women without coverage but also about “sap[ping] the enthusiasm of women’s right’s advocates” who support him. As a result, as Andrew Sullivan writes in Newsweek, “Obama didn’t ignite just a culture war but a religious and gender war as well.”

Maybe so. But while it can be tempting to see the gender lines of this debate, I’m going to guess that it was ultimately pragmatism that ruled the day for Obama. As National Public Radio reported Friday, the concept of mandated birth control coverage is not exactly new: “The only truly novel part of the plan is the ‘no cost’ bit.” Employers have largely been required to offer contraceptive coverage, if not pay for it, since 2000, when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)said that not doing so violates the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. More than half the states have similar laws in place, and the limited religious exemption favored by the president’s female advisers and part of the initially proposed plan has been upheld by the courts in at least two of the biggest states.

As a result, it’s not hard to see how a pragmatic, legally minded president might see the logic in using similar criteria. And it’s not hard to imagine that he might have thought others would see the logic in his thinking, too—an approach supported by the EEOC for over a decade now and associated with many state laws.

This is a president known for his level-headed coolness and logic-oriented thinking, and there are times when that might serve him well. But in this case—one that required divining the emotional reaction of religious conservatives and thinking with his heart, not his head—it did not.

More from On Leadership:

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In birth control debate, a sacred question

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View Photo Gallery: From the American Red Cross to the Supreme Court, more and more institutions of power in the nation’s capital are seeing women take the lead.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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