Until his Notre Dame speech, President Barack Obama had avoided bold statements on hot-button social issues. He lifted the ban on federal funds for abortion providers abroad late on a Friday afternoon, ensuring minimal press coverage. The same was true for releasing new National Institutes of Health guidelines governing his program for embryonic stem cell research.
But when he arrived at the University of Notre Dame this month to deliver a commencement address, Obama confronted the controversy surrounding his appearance there head-on. He devoted much of his speech to abortion, the issue that had spurred prominent Roman Catholics to protest his appearance at one of the nation's premier Catholic schools. Reaching out to antiabortion critics, Obama made his clearest statements yet on a "common ground" approach to the nation's biggest political wedge. "There is potential that he improved his relationship with Catholics who disagree with him on abortion but who agree with him on economic and foreign policy matters," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Though Obama has moved to rescind George W. Bush-era protections for healthcare workers who object to abortion, at Notre Dame he called for a "sensible conscience clause" to protect such workers. And he vowed to support abortion reduction measures like increasing the availability of adoption and improving support for pregnant women who decide to carry their fetuses—Obama called them "children," using the antiabortion movement's terminology—to term, goals previously articulated only by aides.
For the administration, the gestures were partly aimed at showing that Catholics could influence policy through engagement, a rebuttal to conservatives who wanted Notre Dame to rescind its invitation. But antiabortion groups were unconvinced. "He continues to claim abortion reduction as a goal when none of his policies support that," says Deal Hudson, who directed Catholic outreach for Bush and runs the website InsideCatholic. "That's just him being disingenuous."
But the Roman Catholic Church was less critical. The Vatican's newspaper characterized Obama's address as "the search for a common ground: This seems to be the path chosen by the president . . . facing the delicate question of abortion."
Despite big differences between Obama and Catholic teachings on issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research, the White House has worked closely with the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and with groups such as Catholic Charities USA on issues that include faith-based partnerships and healthcare reform. That behind-the-scenes work will continue until the next watershed moment between Obama and the church, probably his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
In the meantime, Obama's Catholic support is high, despite the Notre Dame flap. A recent Pew poll showed that 67 percent of Catholics, who account for roughly a quarter of the electorate, approve of Obama's job performance. Hoping to rely on that support as he moves to implement his agenda on healthcare, education, and energy reform, Obama is working hard to keep it from slipping.