It’s too early to know for sure what the fallout will be from the fight over the Obama administration’s proposed—and, more recently, compromised—requirement for religiously affiliated institutions to provide health insurance that covers contraception. A week ago, before the flap, a string of positive economic news had helped Obama reach a 49 percent Gallup job-approval rating. There was 45 percent disapproval in the Feb. 6-8 Gallup three-night moving average, his highest Gallup approval rating since mid-June. In the next few days, Gallup tracks reported approves-disapproves of 48 to 46 percent for both Feb. 7-9 and 8-10. Then, about the time the controversy erupted, Obama’s approval dropped three points to 45 approving, with 48 disapproving in the Feb. 9-11 track. On Monday, Gallup reported 46 percent approving, with 47 percent disapproving in its Feb. 10-12 rating. The approval was up a point, and disapproval dropped one. With nightly tracking, it’s always prudent to watch for several days before drawing a conclusion. But the latest numbers suggest that Obama took a hit, although it’s hardly a free-fall.
This was always going to be a fight over which side of the controversy did a better job of framing the issue. If the focus was on contraception, Obama and his team would certainly come out ahead. In particular, younger women, especially single women, are one of the best demographics for him. Within the Democratic Party, the challenge is getting more of them to vote.
On the other hand, if this fight became perceived as largely one over religious freedom, requiring institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church to pay for services fundamentally at odds with church doctrine, that’s a different story, and it’s one much more problematic for Obama and Democrats. Keeping in mind that Democrats were once the party of choice for Catholics, at least among whites, it is now almost entirely a secular party. Indeed, among white voters, frequency of church attendance, regardless of affiliation, is highly predictive of voting. The more frequently white voters attend church, the more likely they are to vote Republican. Those who infrequently or rarely attend church are far more associated with voting Democratic.
The political choice faced by the Obama administration on whether to push the initial rule reminded me of something that happened years ago (the names of the state and the elected figures involved have been left out to keep things focused on the basic question). A conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate took on a liberal incumbent Democratic senator in a fairly liberal state. The incumbent Democrat supported a right to late-term abortions, a position that was anathema to the GOP challenger. While the state’s voters overall were far more supportive of the pro-choice side of the abortion issue than the pro-life side, polls showed that late-term abortions were far more controversial. When the GOP challenger insisted on using the late-term abortion issue, the GOP Senate campaign committee chairman strenuously advised the challenger not to push that issue. The older and wiser party leader, I am told, explained to the challenger that if he could somehow build high walls around the late-term abortion issue and keep the fight contained there, it might be a winner. But the leader cautioned that it was impossible to build those walls high enough: It would spill out and inevitably become a fight over abortion writ large, making it a loser. The end of the story is that the challenger chose to use the issue in advertising anyway, and it soon grew to become a fight over abortion. The incumbent Democrat narrowly won.
The White House clearly could not keep this issue contained either, and it started a firestorm that was bigger, I suspect, than anticipated.
But there is a second point worth noting: This fight totally shifted the focus away from a flurry of positive economic news that had pushed Obama’s numbers higher and seemed to brighten his reelection prospects. Why pick a new fight when the lead weight that has hung around your neck is being lightened?
This should also be a reminder that the election is just under nine months away. Those who said that President Obama had suddenly become a strong favorite for reelection, because the economy seemed to be turning around, ignored the fact that there is a long time for the economy to move up or down. Nothing remains constant in politics for nine months.
If you think of the president’s reelection outlook on a red-light (likely lose), yellow-light (highly competitive), and green-light (likely to win) basis, the economy for most of last year was such that there was a red light on for Obama’s prospects. While no one knows what will happen between now and November, his situation has improved to a yellow light. This positions him better, but it hardly gets him out of the woods. This recent contraception controversy should be a reminder that there is still a lot of time and a lot of fights left, giving supporters on either side the opportunity to declare victory or throw in the towel.
This article appears in the Feb. 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.