NEW YORK & SANTA FE, NM (By— It was no secret inside the West Wing that Bill Daley, a Catholic with deep connections to the church hierarchy, vehemently opposed the administration’s proposal to require church-run hospitals and universities to give their employees free contraception.
But it was the way he pushed his case that aggravated some women on President Barack Obama’s senior staff, according to current and former administration officials. In early November, without consulting them, Daley set up a four-man Oval Office meeting for himself, Obama, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Vice President Joe Biden, who both shared the view the policy would sink the president with Catholic voters.
Obama, hadn’t made any final decision, hadn’t fully analyzed the dueling arguments, hadn’t expressed a strong policy preference, and felt “mildly uncomfortable” being put on the spot.
On Jan. 20 — after a protracted internal debate over the policy’s implications and lobbying from allies in the reproductive-rights community — Obama approved the mandate, to the horror of the conservative Dolan and even to more liberal Catholic allies such as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.
From the standpoint of the 2012 campaign, the debate over birth control, the stuff of the 1960s, has opened a dangerous electoral schism for Democrats, pitting Obama’s base of female supporters against the church and a GOP presidential field all too eager to seize on a perceived assault on religious liberty.
But it has also exposed surprisingly acute ideological, religious and gender divisions within a White House that prides itself on pulling together as a cohesive unit after a major decision, however sloppy the deliberation. And the fissures may have contributed to the slow, seemingly disorganized response to the escalating attacks, amplifying damage from a fight that would have been politically perilous in any case.
The Dolan meeting is just one example of the administration’s fumbling of an incendiary issue dating to the summer of 2011.
The session broke up after less than an hour, and Obama made no commitment to Dolan, a barrel-chested eminence in dark clerical vestments and scarlet skullcap. The president, in sphinx mode, said he’d seek an accommodation amenable to all parties. That left the politically savvy prelate feeling “a little more at peace” about the outcome, which he duly reported to the media.
The benediction didn’t last long — and Dolan’s modest expression of optimism did a lot of political damage to the Obama White House. The archbishop, messaging as masterfully as any Washington consultant, created the expectation Obama was, more or less, on his side. And that allowed Dolan — along with House Speaker John Boehner and GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — to cast the decision as a betrayal of Catholics.
“Think of this as Bill Daley’s parting gift to the White House,” said a prominent abortion-rights activist who works closely with the White House.
Several of the president’s most influential female advisers — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett among them — were angry by what they viewed as a Daley power play and made their sentiment known to Obama, according to several people close the situation. Daley could not be reached for comment.
Yet casting the internal debate as a battle of the sexes doesn’t tell the whole story. Plenty of men in Obama’s orbit signed off, if not enthusiastically, on the decision. And at least one woman, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who helped quarterback the passage of the Affordable Care Act, opposed the policy. She argued it would seriously undermine Catholic leaders who bucked the bishops by supporting the bill, including Sister Carol Keehan, head of the largest association of Catholic health-care centers.
In the end, Obama was motivated by personal conviction, aides said. He made the passionate case that several million women — many neither Catholic nor rich enough to pay $60 a month for contraception — should have access to free birth control, even while working for church-run institutions.
There’s little doubt Obama’s decision also represented a concession to women’s groups, who were already angered by then-Rep. Bart Stupak’s anti-abortion amendment to the health care bill and by the administration’s decision to limit expanded availability of the morning-after pill.
He was also encouraged by the endorsement of senior adviser David Plouffe, a trusted political aide who reportedly reviewed private polling data and concluded the vast majority of Catholic voters, who don’t adhere to the church’s dictates on birth control anyway, wouldn’t punish Obama for his decision.
But if this was Daley’s “parting gift” to the president, Obama helped gift-wrap it for his enemies by failing to make a coherent case for forcing the church to accept the mandate. In general, the White House seemed slow to realize the bishops, never shy about applying public pressure on birth control, would rally the faithful from the pulpit and through the pulp press.
Pete Rouse, counselor to the president and a supporter of the mandate, guided pro-choice activists from Planned Parenthood to downplay the decision, warning them against an instant backlash if they were seen “dancing in the end zone,” according to a Democrat with knowledge of the situation. White House officials say Rouse wasn’t imposing a gag order, just offering a bit of prudent messaging advice.
Three weeks into a political battle that shows no sign of abating, White House officials are still showing no signs of owning their decision — or decisively cutting bait.
Behind the scenes, senior White House officials are prevailing upon women’s groups to defend the decision, while Biden and others are publicly hinting at a yet-to-be articulated compromise that will silence the opposition.
On Thursday, Biden, citing a “lot of misunderstanding” about the rule, told a Cincinnati radio station he is “determined to see this gets worked out, and I believe we can work it out.”
On the other end of the spectrum from the Catholic groups are Democrats who support the policy and won’t remain silent if Obama cuts a face-saving deal they don’t like.
In the fall, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and other Democratic senators pressured Daley on a conference call, demanding Obama support the policy, according to a staffer briefed on the interaction.
“It was an effort by a number of us in the Senate to express our belief about the importance of making sure all women had access to contraceptives,” Shaheen said in an interview.
At an otherwise friendly closed-door meeting Wednesday with Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — the sponsor of the amendment that precipitated the policy — confronted Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
“Why aren’t we messaging this better?” Mikulski asked, according to a person in attendance. Her views were echoed by several others — and Messina responded by saying the campaign is mobilizing to deal with it.
But the bishops, along with a handful of other Catholic organizations, have been mobilized for months, working the media and the back channels of the White House.
Biden contacted a number of bishops, according to Bishop William Lori, chair of the conference’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
And then there was the Oval Office sit-down between Dolan and the president.
“I know it was taken by the conference as an opportunity at the highest level of the government to explain our concerns as reasonably and carefully as we could,” Lori said in an interview Thursday. “Dolan expressed measured hopefulness when it was over, but all of us understood the proof would be in the pudding.”
Dolan’s hopes were apparently misplaced. “The needle didn’t move at all,” Lori said. “It could not be said our concerns were addressed. It could not be said a balance was struck.”
On Daley’s role in arranging the meeting, he couldn’t say for sure, but added: “Bill Daley was involved in this, and we would have regarded him as helpful.”
Moreover, Obama may have discovered his most effective political opponent of 2012 in Dolan, a skilled tactician who is using his post as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to accuse the president of the United States of betrayal.
Dolan has a history of picking fights with high-profile Democrats, calling out Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for “misrepresenting” church doctrine on abortion. He said Notre Dame made “a big mistake” by inviting pro-abortion rights Obama to speak there in March 2009.
Once the contraception announcement was made Jan. 20, the Conference didn’t waste any time.
Dolan recorded a video message. The conference blasted out a press release calling the rule “literally unconscionable” and scoffed at a year grace period for religious employers to comply.
“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Dolan said, in a statement that got wide pickup in the media.
Over the next week, the conference took action across multiple platforms. Dolan used the annual National Prayer Vigil for Life, which marks the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, to call on Catholics to “speak out for the protection of conscience rights and religious liberty.” Dolan published sharp op-eds in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, while Lori, another conference leader, weighed in with a post on The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog.
By the weekend of Jan. 28, dioceses across the country had gotten word from the Catholic leadership: Talk it up from the pulpit.
The Catholic leadership wrote a letter to “all the bishops of the United States summarizing the issue and suggesting the bishops ask their clergy” to read a letter to their congregations criticizing the ruling, Lori said.
“There has been a robust response,” he said.
That coordinated action quickly escalated the public relations fight. It was around that time, Lori said, commentators “on the left and right seemed to think even if they didn’t agree with the church’s teachings, the HHS mandate represented an overreach.”
The conference wants the administration to rescind not just the narrow religious exemption but the underlying rule requiring private employers to offer contraceptive coverage as part of their employee benefit plans — a position that leaves little room for compromise with the president.
On the other side of the issue, reproductive-rights advocates were caught off guard by the firestorm.
“We didn’t expect that to happen because one would really question whether this is the wisest way to conduct a discussion around health and whether this is really where the Republican Party wants to put its values,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.
“If it was not an election year, I don’t think this issue would have had the fuel to run as fast and as far as it was without being fueled by the GOP who really needed a bat to beat the president with,” O’Brien said.
He said there is a divide between the pundit class in Washington and the rest of the nation.
The issue has the attention of editorial boards, the Catholic hierarchy and cable talks shows, “but that doesn’t mean Middle America and ordinary citizens are riled up,” O’Brien said.
Lori said he could not predict how the standoff might end, but the conference will keep up the pressure.
“Many bishops around the country and many lay persons and fine commentators continue to speak out on it,” he said. “Right now it is a pretty fast-moving freight train.”