President Obama may have gotten more than he bargained for last week when he issued his edict that would force Catholic religious institutions to purchase contraception insurance for their employees in spite of the fact that the church is opposed on principle to their use. The issue has become a rallying cry for Catholics of all political affiliations as they have denounced Obama’s effort to abridge their religious freedom. It has also given the Republican campaign to repeal Obamacare new impetus, as the regulations are a function of the national health plan imposed by the president.
So it was probably only to be expected that Obama’s chief campaign adviser David Axelrod signaled this morning in an interview that Democrats are trying to find a way to come back in off the ledge onto which the president has crawled with this ill-advised ruling. Axelrod went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today and said the White House is attempting to find a compromise that would walk back the attack on the church while still enforcing a right to contraception coverage. Given the way the issue had become a major talking point for Republican presidential candidates, especially for a strong social conservative like the surging Rick Santorum, Obama would do well to dispense with the attempt at compromise and simply retract the regulation before it does him any more harm.
Given how strongly Obama’s base feels about the issue, that won’t be easy. One of the prime motivations for liberal support for the contraception mandate is that it enables the government to put the Catholic Church in its place. Making the church bend to the will of its secular critics is part of the attraction of the issue for liberals. A presidential retreat on the point is inevitalbe, now that Obama realizes there will be a heavy political cost to be paid. The White House may also realize the longer this issue stays on the front-burner the more it will endanger the president’s signature health care legislation from which it emanates. Whatever his instincts about the issue, the president simply hasn’t the stomach for a knock-down, drag-out battle to diminish religious freedom.
This episode is the Obama administration in capsule form. The problem arose from a knee-jerk ideological mandate that was imposed regardless of principle or the political cost. But once the president was called to account, his instinct was to back down. This pattern has been repeated many times in the last few years and has served to infuriate conservatives and disillusion liberals. While an administration walk back of this blunder is to be encouraged, Obama’s lack of leadership and weakness must be recognized for what it is: a formula for a one-term presidency.