Is Obama Caving on Mandate or Playing Politics?

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

Pressure from the U.S. bishops and millions of concerned Americans about a health care mandate that infringes on religious freedom has Obama’s re-election team calling for a cmopromise that many believe is just a political ploy to regain favor with Catholic voters.

Newsmax is reporting that David Axelrod, a top advisor to the president’s re-election team, appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe yesterday and indicated that the White House may be willing to work with the Church to find a way to get around a mandate that would force religious employers to provide free contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations in their health care plans.

“I think we need to lower our voices and get together,” Axelrod said. “We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventative care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions.”

He said the Obama administration would move forward, “but with a grace period or time period in order to work this thing through. We want to resolve it in an appropriate way.”

He added: “The question now is about these extended affiliated institutions … and there are tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of women who work in these hospitals and universities who are not Catholic or they may be Catholic and they use birth control,” Axelrod said, referring to the mandate’s religious exemption that is so narrow almost no Catholic institution qualifies for it.

“The question is whether they are going to have the same package that every other woman in the country has to the same right and access to basic preventive care.”

The fact that this announcement came from a political advisor rather than the White House, and was made on the same day that White House press secretary Jay Carney was defending the mandate to the press corps, has many believing it’s just a political ploy to stem the tide of outrage that has been flooding churches throughout the U.S. in the past few weeks.

Leading the blowback campaign has been the head of the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. Dolan personally brought his concerns about the mandate to the president during a meeting at the White House in November in which he was reassured by Obama that he considered the protection of conscience rights to be “sacred” and would seek some kind of compromise. However, when he was called and told the only compromise would be a one-year extension to comply with the mandate, Dolan said he was “personally disappointed” and shared those sentiments with the president.

“I had to share with him that I was terribly let down, disappointed and disturbed, and it seemed the news he had given me was difficult to square with the confidence I had felt in November,” Dolan said.

The Archbishop then launched a vigorous campaign against the mandate that has sparked outrage among Americans of all religious persuasions. At this writing, 160 of the country’s 195 bishops have issued a letter and/or preached about the mandate, publicly proclaiming that the Church “will not comply with this unjust law.”

Catholic journalist Peggy Noonan said in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that the mandate could cost the president the White House because it is so blatant a violation of religious liberty and one that is proving to be a unifying moment for Catholics.

” If they [Catholics] stay strong and fight, they will win.This is in fact a potentially unifying moment for American Catholics, long split left, right and center. Catholic conservatives will immediately and fully oppose the administration’s decision. But Catholic liberals, who feel embarrassed and undercut, have also come out in opposition.

“The church is split on many things. But do Catholics in the pews want the government telling their church to contravene its beliefs? A president affronting the leadership of the church, and blithely threatening its great institutions? No, they don’t want that. They will unite against that.”

She also expressed disbelief that the Administration could be so politically inept that it would even wage such a war during an election year, especially because “There was no reason to make this ruling—none. Except ideology.”

Whether or not the president’s new overture will result in any significant changes to the mandate remains to be seen.

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