Hours after the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act, debate veered violently away from the economics and merits of the bill and toward the familiar American quagmire of abortion politics. "Outrageous," declared a Feminist Majority press release. Rachel Maddow predicted a revolt among women. "Discriminatory," said California's Barbara Boxer. (Article continued below...)
At issue, of course, is Stupak, the 11th-hour amendment to the health-care legislation coauthored by the previously unremarkable Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan. It would prohibit federal subsidies from being used to buy health policies that cover elective abortion. Abortion-rights supporters say the provision would lead most insurers to abandon abortion coverage in all policies.
Nancy Pelosi, the nation's first female House speaker, might reasonably be ex-pected to take the heat for Stupak. She's the one who, perhaps mindful of Gallup polling that finds a shift among Americans toward the "pro-life" position, brokered the cynical deal with conservative Democrats and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But many women focused on President Barack Obama, claiming that if he didn't exactly back the amendment, he didn't prevent it. "It would have been possible to draw some lines in the sand, and he didn't," says Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. Obama's tepid comments on the furor—"There are strong feelings on both sides," the president told ABC News—made matters worse.
While Stupak threatens to swamp debate in the Senate, the White House faces a more serious political problem. Women, especially white women, are growing disenchanted with the president. "President Obama is very different from candidate Obama," says NOW's O'Neill. Since his inauguration, Obama's approval rating has averaged 62 percent among women, according to Gallup. But in the most recent poll, his rating declined to 53 percent.
On the left, women suspect that the president, for all the smooth talk, doesn't really walk the walk. They argue that there aren't enough women in key roles at the White House. The lesbian community is embittered by the president's failure to rescind the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rules and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. And, as always, there is Hillary. Many women remain resentful about the bitter 2008 nomination fight. Remember "You're likable enough"? Well, today 62 percent of the public has a positive view of Clinton—6 points higher than Obama.
Yes, Stupak was a big blunder. But it's silly to think that in 10 months in office, the president could have satisfied everyone on everything. Here's the impressive reality: three days into his presidency, Obama ended a ban on U.S. funding for international groups that provide abortion-related services—the so-called gag order and one of the liberal Democrats' most reviled Republican schemes. The first piece of legislation he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding the rules under which women can file equal-pay lawsuits. The president has given seven of the top 21 jobs in his administration to women—including Clinton—and he appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Obama even created the nation's first-ever U.S. ambassadorship for global women's issues.
In their hearts, women on the left know the score. But the president has a serious issue with women at the center—the white center. While Obama's approval rating among black women remains above 90 percent, pollster Thomas Riehle says the president's numbers are declining among white women older than 65, low-income women nationwide, and white women in the Midwest and South. Their issues have little to do with gay marriage. "Their main concern is jobs, the economy, and their personal financial situations," Riehle says.
They may also be responding to relentless anti-Obama rhetoric with a racist subtext. "Republican operatives are trying to inflame the tension that has always been there between black men and white women," says Charles Ellison, senior fellow at the Center for New Politics and Policy. Calling Obama a radical socialist is one example. "That raises the image of the angry black activist, which frightens some people," he says. "That is just going to be the reality for this White House."
To stem a politically disastrous widening of this gender gap, the president has to find a way to deal with festering discontent among women. "He needs to deliver more for Main Street than Wall Street," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. Job creation would certainly help. But so would more sensitivity to what women want—to stop being so, well, so Stupak.