Are Democrats too eager to abandon President Obama on controversial issues?
When Obama announced Friday he would revise his policy on contraceptives and allow religious hospitals and other institutions an exemption, he bemoaned “the cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football.”
The implication from Obama was that conservatives were to blame for turning a complicated, nuanced issued into a heated political battle where compromise seemed impossible.
But Obama’s decision to revise his initial policy came as a number of traditionally stalwart allies, from former Virginia governor and DNC chair Tim Kaine to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), all suggested the president’s approach was wrong.
The quick, public retreat from Democrats emboldened Republicans to increase their volume in attacking the president. And it suggests that even in an election year, Democrats are likely to air public criticisms of the president when they disagree with him, as they have the past three years.
“The fact that it (the exemption) doesn’t cover religious institutions that either employ or serve people other than members of the faith, it just means that that exemption isn’t broad enough,” Kaine told the Associated Press last week, remarks conservatives highlighted as they criticized the president’s policy.
Kaine is a very devout Catholic, as were many of the critics of Obama’s initial proposal to require all employers except for churches to offer birth control coverage to their employees.
But many of Obama’s tactical shifts in his tenure, from stopping his plans to close the
military prison at Guantanomo Bay to playing down his support of the controversial mosque that was to be constructed near Ground Zero, have come in the face of Democrats unwilling to support his decisions as they become fodder on Fox News and other cable news outlets.
Democrats, particularly in Congress, of course have their own reasons to oppose the president. Some, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), who has criticized Obama’s team for not doing enough to reduce black unemployment, have legitimate, deep policy differences. Other criticism, such as the continued barbs by Sen. Joe Manchin (W.V.) , are more political, but perhaps necessary in states where the president is unpopular. President Bush endured similar criticisms.
And to be sure, Democrats are broadly support of the president. Obama received little criticism from Democrats for completely flip-flopping last week on the use of Super PAC’s by his allies. Gay rights advocates have not lambasted his odd “evolving” position on gay marriage, seemingly to acknowledge the trickiness of the issue politically for Obama. Most African-American leaders are marching in lockstep with the president.
But the number of defections on the contraceptive issue could point to a larger challenge for Obama. Democrats are known for not being as top-down as Republicans, with many voices who want to distinguish themselves rather than follow the party’s leaders.
In 2008, once Obama secured the nomination, prominent Democrats backed him enthusiastically. The differences they expressed publicly were largely about tactics, as many in the party felt he should be more forceful in taking on John McCain and Sarah Palin. But Obama’s stances on key issues were rarely criticized.
Now, the president is leading a party with significantly more internal tension. More conservative Democrats feel Obama’s policies thinned their ranks in 2010, as these Democrats lost to Republicans who attacked the health care law and the stimulus.
As Kaine and Manchin have already shown, moderate Democrats may be eager to separate themselves from the president in 2012.
Hollywood and Wall Street types, who Obama needs to fill his campaign coffers and match the Super Pac’s of the GOP, have their own critiques.
What’s unknown is if any of this will affect Obama’s ability to win in November. He won in 2008 because black voters, Latinos, people under 30 and independents all galvanized around Obama. Polls suggest Obama’s base is largely behind now.
At the same time, Obama is likely to face a fired-up Republican Party in 2012. If the criticism of the president from fellow Democrats dampens the enthusiasm of any of Obama’s key voting blocs, it could hurt him in the general election.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr