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Contraception Shell Game

Political operatives are debating whether Obama’s contraception “misstep” was actually a stroke of genius.


A Machiavellian countenance? President Obama(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

One of the first lessons of covering the White House is that it’s never as nimble, shrewd, or savvy as it appears in victory or as clumsy, inept, and chaotic as it appears in defeat. Indulging in either absolute “frame” is often reckless and stupid. However, White House power is both vast and intricate. A White House can see an issue coming, set a plan in motion, and gain ground—exactly as it intended.

The Obama White House may have done precisely that in the now-settled confrontation over cost-free access to contraception. I have interviewed more than a dozen Democrats and they all grade Obama and his team differently on how they handled the “crisis.” Some see a genuine and lasting upside. Others see a last-minute rescue that papers over a conspicuous internal screwup. Neither the White House nor Obama’s reelection campaign will comment on the record. But neither will challenge the notion that Team Obama won much more than it lost.


It would take a lot to believe the White House was Machiavellian enough to set the contraception conflict in motion. Some Democrats who work closely with the White House dismiss that notion entirely. But others do not and see within the saga’s arc the unmistakable handiwork of White House adviser and 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, as skilled and methodical an operative as any in the Obama realm.

Whatever the truth, this much seems clear: Regardless of the original plan, the White House now finds itself in a position of advantage among voters who matter a great deal to Obama’s reelection.


  1. The “solution” announced by the White House on Friday was available all along. Did it just occur to the White House to make the insurers pay directly for contraception? Requiring insurers to provide a new array of coverage is at the core of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (disputes have arisen over who pays, how much, and the enforcement reach of the Constitution’s commerce clause).
  2. The “solution” started on Friday. No debate; the new rule is finished. Gone is the one-year review attached to the original proposal requiring large religious institutions to pay for contraception. Friday’s move conveniently fulfills a White House desire to “get things done.”
  3. Leading up to Friday’s resolution, campaign adviser David Axelrod and Vice President Joe Biden spoke soothingly about “compromise” and the willingness to “work it out.” This created a narrative of reasonableness up against the hardening rhetoric from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many leading Republicans (which continues now). Yes, the choice between contraception and “religious liberty” was unpleasant for independent voters, and progressive Catholics were genuinely aggrieved. But the solution softened if not completely erased those discontents, inflicting no apparent lasting damage on Obama.
  4. Vitally important swing-state Democratic senators and candidates were given precious time and visibility to distance themselves from Obama. Former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia and Sens. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Robert Casey in Pennsylvania, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (to name just the most obvious beneficiaries) found themselves in a win-win position—embracing the need for cost-free contraception while simultaneously hitting a culture-war nerve with swing voters by criticizing Obama for disrespecting religious institutions. With the new religious exemption and an insurer-pays federal rule, these Democrats could, and gleefully did, return to the fold.
  5. For women voters across all races and income brackets, the issue of cost-free contraception resonates. It’s a prism through which to view how policies affect them directly or women generally. In every presidential election since 1980, the proportion of women voters has exceeded the proportion of male voters. Since 1992, the number of women voters has exceeded the number of male voters by at least 7.3 million (it was 9.7 million in 2008, and Obama creamed Sen. John McCain 56 percent to 43 percent). In a January CNN/Time poll, Obama led presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney 53 percent to 45 percent among women. In a Feb. 10 Fox News poll, Obama led Romney 50 percent to 38 percent. Obama’s advantage over Romney among women voters widened while the contraception controversy raged.
  6. Romney has lost ground during this debate. His position against Obama and skepticism of the compromise moves him closer to a position that could be portrayed as hostile to contraception coverage. What’s more, he has what might charitably be called a “preexisting-condition problem” because Massachusetts has a no-co-pay contraception-coverage mandate that allows a more limited exemption for large religious organizations than Obama’s compromise.
  7. The contraception issue elevates Rick Santorum in the area of social-conservative consistency, and that harms Romney. Anything that lifts Santorum and prolongs the GOP nomination fight helps Obama—or so his team believes.

One last piece of evidence: When new White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew appeared on Meet the Press, he said: “What the president announced Friday was what was envisioned all along.”

Truer words might never have been spoken.

This article appears in the February 15, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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