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Obama's search for 'balance' defines his decision-making

Obama's dispute with Catholic leaders on birth control illustrates a quest for balance that sometimes leaves nobody happy.

November 02, 2012|By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — It was just a few days after the Obama administration announced its groundbreaking decision to require employers providing health insurance to cover contraception, and a controversy was flaring.

Roman Catholic bishops were vowing to fight an "unconscionable" mandate. Catholic hospitals and even some Catholic Democrats were assailing President Obama, saying he was trampling on religious freedom.

Obama, as angry as his senior aides had ever seen him, summoned them to the Oval Office. The debate over the decision had roiled the administration, dividing top staff members along religious, gender and political lines. The policy was backed by trusted advisors, but the president never seemed comfortable with it.

On the day it was announced, he had caught his advisors by surprise when he told New York's archbishop, Timothy Dolan, the policy was not final and there was still time to find a compromise. Now, the president was telling his aides that he had read the legal opinions and policy papers on the issue, and he saw no reason why a more accommodating solution had been ruled out.

"Fix this," he said testily.

"He didn't have the balance he wanted, and he wasn't happy with us about it," said a senior administration official, who, like others interviewed, declined to be identified talking about internal discussions.

Obama's search for "balance" — deemed insufficient by critics and infuriating by allies — is the defining principle of this president's decision-making. Part personal inclination and part political calculation, the president's sometimes awkward attempts to accommodate both sides of the political spectrum have driven nearly every major policy move in his first term: his overhaul of the healthcare system, attempts to cut the national debt, and his plans to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The contraceptives decision, although a smaller-scale one, offers a window into this process. In the weeks before the president's decision, he juggled liberal inclinations within his administration with conservative views held by prominent Catholics, inside and outside the White House. He crafted a policy that largely sided with liberal supporters but attempted to be sensitive to religious concerns. And, as was true with many decisions in his first term, the president seemed startled to find that his policy did not mollify his opponents.

The tussle over the birth control mandate began in the summer of last year, after the Department of Health and Human Services laid out interim rules for the Affordable Care Act, often known as "Obamacare."

The law required all employers to provide coverage for contraceptives to their employees at no additional cost, with an exception for "religious employers." The interim rules defined religious employers as houses of worship, but not religious universities, hospitals and social service agencies, which serve and employ people of all religions and cultural backgrounds.

Within the White House, many top staffers wanted to make the interim rules permanent. But a subset — led by Catholics — saw the rules as a major blowup in the making. They thought it was possible to head off a controversy and important to try.

Vice President Joe Biden and Bill Daley, who was then chief of staff, set up a meeting between Obama and Dolan.

The two men had a rocky relationship. While both made public, personal overtures, they were far apart on policy. Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who has since been elevated to cardinal, is the voice of the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.

When Dolan arrived at the White House, his organization was already in a battle with the Obama administration over a decision to pull grant money from Catholic groups working to combat sex trafficking.

In the Oval Office that day, according to one participant, Obama appeared conciliatory when it came to the grant dispute. And he asked questions about Dolan's contention that the birth control policy would violate religious freedom.

Dolan, who declined to be interviewed, has said he left encouraged.

The Dolan meeting sent nervous jitters through pro-choice and women's groups who were pushing to keep the interim rule. They intensified their lobbying, relying on White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, as their main allies.

They also had a supporter in political advisor David Plouffe, who argued that the bishops were a lost cause and suggested the White House focus on moderate Catholics such as Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Assn. of the United States, who had backed the administration in the healthcare fight.

Plouffe also thought the bishops' complaints could bolster a useful campaign narrative: that supporters of their view, including Republican Mitt Romney, held anachronistic views about women and family planning.

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