Obama likely to win the birth control debate

President Obama’s re-election chances are looking better by the day. Conventional wisdom (probably correct in this case) says the economy is the key issue in Presidential elections. If things are going well, the President gets re-elected. If not, then not. Despite the robust efforts of John Boehner, Eric Cantor et al. to talk down the economy or to grind the government to a halt, and despite the European debt crisis, economic growth in the US is looking pretty good.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party’s influence scared off the more reasonable, electable GOP Presidential candidates and we’re left with an odd bunch. Santorum is a pretty extreme social conservative and nowhere near qualified to be president, Gingrich is a narcissist and probably more of a socialist than Obama, Paul appears to be a modern day John Bircher, and who knows where Romney really stands? In any case, the group has taken the primary so far to the right that it’s opened up a huge centrist gap for Obama to fill.

The recent flap over birth control is pretty interesting in that regard. I doubt Obama planned it this way, but it seems likely that things will work out at least neutrally for Obama and possibly very positively. The original Obama proposal, requiring religious institutions to offer birth control coverage — was quite reasonable. It was in line with the policy that’s in place in most states in the US –one that doesn’t generate a lot of debate. When things blew up, Obama back tracked a little bit, forcing insurers to pay for the benefit. His move was enough to at least partially mollify the sincere critics (e.g., Catholic hospitals). But of course nothing Obama proposes will be seen as adequate by his ideological opponents, who are striving to present Obama as trampling on religious freedom.

But opponents are at a serious risk of overplaying their hand. In particular, they may accurately be perceived as against birth control. And that’s not something that the average person in this country is going to be comfortable with.

Birth control is not like the abortion issue. Although “pro-life” campaigners like to portray the “pro-choice” side as “pro-abortion,” it’s just not true. Even those who favor abortion on demand would like to see the number of abortions be as low as possible. That truth is lost on some of the anti-contraception zealots.

As a result of Obama’s partial backtracking, the opposition is split and a bit confused. The real anti-contraception people are coming out of the woodwork, and that’s going to scare the heck out of a lot of undecided and Republican leaning centrist voters. If the Republicans get painted as anti-birth control I don’t see how that’s going to be a winning message for the party. It could even trump bad economic news for some voters.

And although the financial impact hasn’t attracted much coverage, birth control benefits are very cost effective. The benefit reduces unplanned births and the associated medical expenses.

February 14, 2012

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