Obama administration faces backlash over rule ordering birth control coverage

President Obama’s decision to force employers, including religious institutions, to provide health insurance coverage for contraception is becoming a big problem for his reelection campaign.

GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney launched a petition on Monday against the mandate, arguing it was an attack by Obama on “religious liberty.” 

Conservatives, including Catholics such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), are attacking the administration for the decision. And now, nine months before the presidential election, the backlash is growing even among Obama supporters, who say the move was politically tone-deaf.

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“These kind of issues have a powerful symbolic hold on religious voters and could cost [Obama] votes in liberal working-class areas that would otherwise go toward the Democrat,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “[His] support is not deep enough that he can count on their loyalty regardless of his stand on these sorts of issues.”

One former administration official went further, saying, “When you’re planning these types of decisions, you should never be surprised, and it seems like they were caught off guard a bit by the reaction of people like E.J Dionne.”

In a piece over the weekend, the Washington Post columnist, a fan of Obama, wrote that the administration “utterly botched” the issue and “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus,” giving more ammunition to those in the church who aim to derail the new healthcare law.

Douglas Kmiec, a prominent supporter of Obama in 2008 and the president’s former ambassador to Malta, said Monday that he might not support his reelection. 

“Until I have an opportunity to speak with the president, I am for now (unhappily) without a candidate,” Kmiec wrote in an email.


After winning the Nevada caucuses on Saturday night, Romney, who last week called the contraception decision “wrong and indefensible,” fired another shot. 

“President Obama orders religious organizations to violate their conscience,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “I will defend religious liberty and overturn regulations that trample on our first freedom.” 

Romney forced the issue further Monday when he launched a petition against the mandate.

“If you’ve had enough of the Obama Administration’s attacks on religious liberty, stand with me & sign the petition,” he wrote on his Twitter page.

Less than an hour later, Stephanie Cutter, an Obama deputy campaign manager, pushed back, calling Romney hypocritical. “Hope petition signers don’t find out Mitt’s [Massachusetts] policies are identical,” she tweeted.

The White House weighed in using Obama’s official Twitter account to argue that the contraception mandate would “save women money while protecting religious freedom” before linking to the campaign website, where Internet users could “get the facts.”

The White House has said it will work with groups on the rules but has not suggested it will back down, despite pushback from the Catholic Church that has seen an estimated 70 percent of the nation’s parish priests criticize the rules to their congregations.

On Monday, press secretary Jay Carney also attempted to clarify “some misreporting” about what the decision is and “what it isn’t.

Carney said that “lost” in the initial reports was the fact that this policy provides an exemption for churches and houses of worship — an exemption that doesn’t currently exist in eight states in this country.

“It did make clear that there were 28 states that require these kinds of preventive services to be included in insurance policies for women, as this policy does,” he said. “We sought a lot of opinion as this policy process took place, and behind the idea of trying to find the right and appropriate balances between religious concerns, on the one hand, and the need to provide healthcare coverage to women across the country. And here, I think is an important point to note … that churches, houses of worship are exempt from this policy.”

The problem for the Catholic Church is that the exemption does not cover religious organizations that employ large numbers of people of different faiths, which means Catholic schools, charities and hospitals are not exempt and would need to offer contraception in their health insurance plans. This would force the church-backed organizations to violate Catholic doctrine, the church and other critics of the mandate argue. 

Two other senior administration officials echoed Carney’s remarks privately on Monday, saying that the decision was an important part of the healthcare reform law that would be a huge benefit to women.

The senior administration officials said they both anticipated a strong reaction either way to the decision. And while nothing about the decision’s original principle is supposed to change, the officials said that Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wanted to spend the transition period over the next year engaged in dialogue in an effort to implement the decision in the best way possible.

The officials said it was too early to say whether an optional “rider”— offered in states like Hawaii — would be included in the plan.

At the same time, the officials said they did not get into how the decision played politically.

Critics are seizing the moment. 

“President Obama just may have lost the election,” conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote over the weekend, adding, “There’s no reason to make this ruling — none. Except ideology.”

Zelizer said the contraception decision could do some damage to Team Obama if Romney puts up a strong campaign in the coming months.

“Then part of the outcome is about picking off votes from the other side and getting independents,” Zelizer explained. “This could bring some Democrats to the GOP in areas hard-hit by unemployment or cause them to stay home.”