Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama pops a morning-after pill

Most progressives feel pretty good for the moment about where the president ended up in the contraception coverage controversy: upholding free access to contraception, providing an avenue for religious opt-out, leaving the GOP to feverishly conceive new contra-contraception positions.  The question is, how did Obama get there?  Brilliant plan? Lucky stumble?  Even as James Fallows' copious mid-course report card on the Obama presidency hit the internets, we had a tantalizing new chess master or pawn? conundrum

Andrew Sullivan, natch, seemed to come down heavy on the chess master side. But how heavy? In a generally judicious and well-documented Newsweek piece, this ambiguously-phrased claim stuck out:
The more Machiavellian observer might even suspect this [compromise, announced 2/10] is actually an improved bait and switch by Obama to more firmly identify the religious right with opposition to contraception, its weakest issue by far, and to shore up support among independent women and his more liberal base. I’ve found by observing this president closely for years that what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd. And if this was a trap, the religious right walked right into it.
Joe Scarborough scoffs at this meep meep scenario:
Andrew Sulllivan claims that Barack Obama saw this coming all along and he was just setting his enemies up into a trap...
Sullivan protests:
I'm talking about the quick compromise, not the original decision.
Well...I suspect that Andrew never fully resolved what he was implying  -- after all, who knows what actually transpired in the administration's counsels, and in the chief actors' heads?  But his assertion that, for Obama, "what often seem like short-term tactical blunders turn out in the long run to be strategically shrewd" indicates that, in his response to Scarborough, Sullivan is protesting too much. A blunder can't be retroactively shrewd, though it can be nimbly salvaged. To suggest that the initial policy wasn't a blunder implies that it was part of a plan envisioning a modified policy.

In fact, I think that's true in a sense. I suspect that the compromise announced on Friday was a fallback position. The administration knew there would be pushback on the contraception mandate; they probably didn't know how much.  So they had a plan b (or Plan B) wholly or partly in mind. (It's widely reported that prior to announcing the policy, they debated various opt-outs, most notably Hawaii's, which is similar to the emendation they settled on.)

In his press briefing announcing the compromise, Obama implicitly admitted that a fallback had been in place, spinning Plan B as lan A, Accelerated:
I also know that some religious institutions -– particularly those affiliated with the Catholic Church -– have a religious objection to directly providing insurance that covers contraceptive services for their employees.  And that’s why we originally exempted all churches from this requirement -– an exemption, by the way, that eight states didn’t already have.

And that’s why, from the very beginning of this process, I spoke directly to various Catholic officials, and I promised that before finalizing the rule as it applied to them, we would spend the next year working with institutions like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs.

Now, after the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option, that we needed to move this faster.  So last week, I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that had already been envisioned.  We weren’t going to spend a year doing this; we're going to spend a week or two doing this.

Today, we've reached a decision on how to move forward. 
The nice thing about executive action is that, in contrast to the legislative process, you really can negotiate with yourself.  Obama could amend the plan without looking weak, striking his favored 'only adult in the room' pose: since you all couldn't go through the process in calm fashion, we'll quck-step it to the foregone conclusion.

I suspect, again, that what we saw unfold was not a master plan but a decision tree.

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