Lots of sensible people do foolish things. What makes them sensible is, they recognize their mistakes and do something to fix them.
President Obama, for the most part, seems like a sensible fellow. Even detractors who disagree with his politics tend to concede that he's intelligent, pragmatic, and occasionally willing to compromise. Yet from time to time Obama digs in his heels on a position that seems strangely defiant and out of step with mainstream views, like a prodigy who's so used to being right that he can't imagine messing up.
Obama's latest what-was-he-thinking moment is his administration's decision regarding birth-control benefits and the Catholic Church. New guidelines require birth control to be included as a covered benefit by every employer that offers health insurance, with no co-payment. Religious institutions have typically been offered exemptions if such rules conflict with their moral teachings. That allows a sort of détente in which the government applies uniform rules to the vast majority of employers, while churches refrain from mustering opposition to rules they disagree with, as long as they're exempt.
But Obama decided that while churches should be exempt from the birth-control requirement, other religious institutions, such as universities and hospitals funded or run by religious groups, must abide by the rule. That has riled bishops and many other Catholics because the church teaches abstinence over birth control. So church-supported institutions are now required to pay for something the church morally objects to.
There are personal and political arguments on both sides of this issue. One side insists that women should have access to affordable contraception no matter who their employer is, including non-Catholics who happen to be employed by Catholic groups. That could reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and, theoretically, abortions. Others point out that contraception is widely available from public clinics and groups such as Planned Parenthood and shouldn't be something dictated from Washington. And of course Republican and Democratic strategists are adding up the votes to be gained or lost from one position or another.
But there's a common-sense argument Obama seems to have missed: In a society as feisty about protecting personal liberties as America, many people find it unsettling when Washington dictates policies that interfere with the moral choices of individuals. Usually, there's a better way to accomplish the same goal.
Both sides in this flap have pointed to a recent poll that shows mixed public support for the birth-control mandate. On one hand, the poll found that 55 percent of respondents agree that all employers should provide contraception as a no-cost benefit. But it also found that 57 percent of people said churches and places of worship should be exempt. So there's some ambivalence about the Obama rule, and probably also some confusion about what exactly it says.
There's also highly predictable outrage from a smaller but very vocal subset of Catholics and other believers who feel Washington has no business forcing religious groups to spend their money on something they morally object to. This is the no-duh reaction Obama either foolishly failed to anticipate, or anticipated and dismissed. Now he must either stick to his guns while alienating a bloc of swing voters who could influence the election in November, or reverse himself in order to extinguish a controversy that didn't need to exist.
Obama has shown this sort of common-sense deficit before. The most obvious example is the individual mandate in his healthcare reform law, which will require every American to either pay for health insurance or fork over a penalty fee. Obama was dead right that America has a broken healthcare system, with exemplary care at the top and piecemeal, often unaffordable coverage everyplace else. But turning Americans into lawbreakers if they don't obtain coverage was a ham-handed part of the solution, violating the common-sense idea that Americans are more receptive to change when led to the right choice, or incentivized to make it. It's hardly surprising that the individual mandate is now the focal point of resistance to the law, and the basis for the legal challenge the Supreme Court will hear this year. If the Supremes shoot down the mandate, the crowning achievement of Obama's first term could unravel.
There are departures from common sense in Obama's economic plan, which includes some good ideas but also relies heavily on new government programs and tax breaks that would further complicate the nation's Byzantine tax code. Maybe Obama hasn't noticed, but trust in government is at record lows. (Confidence in religious institutions, meanwhile, is considerably higher.) And many American feel complexities in the tax system strongly favor the ruling class over everybody else. So more of the same doesn't seem like what Americans want, and even Obama's silver tongue is not likely to convince them otherwise.
There are common threads to these puzzling decisions. In some cases they help resolve a thorny political problem that might otherwise seem intractable. The individual mandate, for instance, was viewed as perhaps the only way to bring additional multitudes into the paid healthcare system and generate the huge economic scale needed to make the whole scheme work. So while it may not have been Obama's preference, the mandate might have seemed a necessary evil that would enable a greater good. New York Times columnist David Brooks theorizes that Obama and his minions prefer technocratic solutions in which one set of fixed rules, applied everywhere, solves a broad national problem, the way strict discipline throughout the military helps make it efficient and effective. What gets lost in that approach, however, is the ability to craft rules to circumstances, and the supremacy of common sense over solutions that are book-smart but street-stupid.
In business, there are many instructive examples of common-sense abandonment. Last year Netflix provoked a bitter backlash when it decided to separate its video streaming and DVD-by-mail services and require users to maintain two separate accounts if they wanted both. Verizon and Bank of American outraged their own customers by nickel-and-diming them with new fees on things that used to be free. Perhaps the most notorious corporate flub is the introduction of New Coke in 1985, a move orchestrated by consultants and researchers even though customers thought the old Coke was just fine. Sales plunged.
The difference in business is that the pressure to reverse a mistaken decision is often immediate and intense, especially if customers are fleeing and the bottom line is shrinking. That's why the leaders at Netflix, Bank of America, Verizon, and Coca-Cola promptly changed their minds, apologized to customers, and set about repairing the damage.
Obama has a chance to change course on his contraception decision, but he also exists in a cocoon of inanimate polls, polymorphous advisers, and political surrealism. Can common sense surmount all that? Obama's re-election bid may require that it does. But it still might not happen.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman