The XX Factor

Obama Got Aggressive on Reproductive Rights, and Won

Sandra Fluke gets a hug from President Barack Obama at a campaign stop in Denver, Colo.

Photograph by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images.

In a sea of post-mortems on the election, I particularly liked Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect explaining how Obama turned it around after things started to look bleak for him in the summer of 2011:

But beginning in the fall, Obama began to reassert himself. With the American Jobs Act, he outlined a viable plan for generating economic growth and kick-starting the recovery. With his widely praised speech in Kansas, he outlined a populist agenda of greater investment and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Over the course of 2012, he built good will with important communities, from LGBT Americans with an endorsement of same-sex marriage to Latino immigrants and their families with a measure meant to emulate the DREAM Act. What’s more, the economy began to pick up: Job growth increased, unemployment dropped, and the overall economic picture began to brighten.

Indeed, what has made the past year so remarkable is how much Obama dropped his image as a great consensus-seeker, and instead decided to take the fight to the opposition. At first, it seemed Republicans drove him to it, by not providing him any opportunity to compromise on budgetary issues, but it quickly became apparent that if the president pushed harder, the public liked him more. Interestingly, it seems the converse is true for Republicans—they needed to show flexibility while Obama needed to show backbone.

Nowhere was this more glaring than on the issue of reproductive rights. Traditionally, Democrats defend existing access to reproductive health care, but in the past few decades, they haven’t really done much to expand it. Even Obama, late in 2011, nixed the FDA decision to let pharmacies put emergency contraception on shelves (instead of behind the counter), and 2008 campaign Obama was much more likely to talk about abortion in hushed tones rather than loudly embrace a woman’s right to choose. But then, in early 2012, the Obama administration shifted gears, passing a regulation that not only requires insurance companies to cover contraception, but to do so without a copay. And as Republican candidates started talking about things like “legitimate rape” and threatening Planned Parenthood, Obama stepped up his pro-choice rhetoric to present a clear choice for voters.

For decades, most legislation on reproductive rights has been about curtailing them, but for once, the Democrats were getting aggressive and the Republicans found themselves on the defensive. Take what happened when conservatives feigned outrage on behalf of the poor, beleaguered Catholic universities and hospitals whose students and employees would get birth control covered directly by insurance companies. Republicans brought in an all-male panel during a hearing aimed at weakening the regulation. A woman who was excluded from testifying, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, was targeted with obsessive sexualized harassment from the right wing media. Conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh went on rants that framed every woman who has ever gone through the health care system to get contraception as a nymphomaniac getting paid by the government to have sex. The misogynist roots of the anti-choice movement were put on full display for the country to see. And you know what Obama did? He gave Fluke a prime-time convention slot. Whaddya know? He also secured a strong majority of female voters come election day. And looking at the polls, the strategy didn’t hurt him with Catholic voters, either.