For a man with a well-earned reputation for picking and framing his political battles well, the president blew it last week when his administration went after a key pillar of the Catholic Church: its support for life. Worse, the White House went out of its way to communicate that its decision was done with intent and was determined by Obama personally. While the president's team quickly swung into damage control mode when it was clear that they had miscalculated, the decision offers tremendous insight into this presidency. Let's recap:
During the State of the Union, President Obama launched a serious shot across the bow of religious freedom. Under its signature healthcare "reform" legislation, the Obama administration was—surprise!—given extraordinary powers. As part of those powers, it decided that entities receiving a dollar in federal funding would have to provide to their employees insurance coverage for sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception. This misguided policy swept up the heretofore exempt charity network of the Catholic Church which sponsors extensive efforts to care for the poor and sick, both here and abroad. As one church leader put it, the regulations enforcing the law would give them one month to figure out how to abandon their principles. Or their care for the poor.
This is doubly ironic because it was the liberal wing of the Catholic Church that delivered "Obamacare." Absent this crucial support, the bipartisan, prolife caucus in Congress would have stopped the legislation from passing. As it was, then-Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan and a Roman Catholic, midwifed the passage of the massive and intrusive legislation, which still would not have become law without the "blessing" of key Catholic charities and a few errant bishops.
From the head of Notre Dame, to the head of the Catholic Health Association Sr. Carol Keehan, the liberal aristocracy of the Catholic Church fell in line. Obama's promise: their respect for life would be respected in the implementation of his sweeping new law. And, yet, the issue that Catholics, including its liberal wing, care most about ultimately mattered little to this administration.
So what does this action reveal about President Obama? Well for one, he is not a man of his word, which may not be big news about a politician, but it is news for a leader who routinely portrays himself across a range of issues as walking the moral high road. Second, he is at times so ideologically driven in his decision-making that it can make him politically tone-deaf. After all, his own vice president and chief of staff argued against taking the wholly unnecessary political step of narrowing the religious exemption, which was the political equivalent of settled law.
Why does this debate matter? We need look no further than the surging campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, whose daughter Bella was born with Trisomy 18, a genetic disorder. That beautiful little girl has a steep road ahead, but judging from Santorum's heartfelt testimony, their family has been graced by Bella's presence. Santorum and his wife Karen chose to welcome Bella into the world against the advice of their doctors. Santorum, reliably prolife in his voting as a senator, walked the talk. His actions not only cast Obama's decision on the issue itself in stark relief, they revealed a different kind of politician--one whose words and actions align when it counts.
On a personal note, on Saturday night, we lost electricity in the D.C.-metro area. Our 18-year-old son was stuck home with his parents. We started talking about the week and, surprisingly, the conscience clause came up. We discussed the fact that President Obama's proposed approach on healthcare might keep a Bella Santorum from ever being born. At that point, my son pulled up a YouTube video entitled "99 Balloons" on our still-functioning iPad. As candles flickered, we were uncustomarily silent watching a young couple celebrate the life and deal with the passing of their beautiful son. Eliot had been born with Trisomy 18 and lived a little over three months. In those 99 days, he affected many lives and perhaps many a conscience.