The proposed federal rule that would force religious hospitals and social service agencies to cover contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations strikes me not only as wrong, but as politically interesting. As a matter of policy, President Obama is well on the far side of the pro-choice spectrum. He is for the legality of partial birth abortion
on demand. It was Obama's good luck that the circumstances of the 2008 election worked to prevent an extended review of Obama's abortion position. The McCain campaign was more interested in identity politics "hockey mom" posturing than in any domestic policy issue that mattered and in any case the financial crisis sucked up all the political oxygen. As President, Obama has been patient and prudent in how he has advanced his social liberalism. When he had an overwhelmingly Congress, Obama spent his political capital on getting Obamacare rather than the Freedom of Choice Act.
He has appointed two young liberal Supreme Justices Court Justices and he only needs a second term and a vacancy among any of the five not-consistently-liberal Justices to make a Supreme Court with a decisive and aggressive liberal majority.
So why is the Obama administration picking this fight now? In the last few years, when Democrats have latched onto abortion/mandated contraception issues in the course of a heavily contested election, it has been because they were losing. When Virginia Democrat Creighton Deeds was losing the debate on the economy, taxes, and public sector efficiency to Bob McDonnell, Deeds tried to change the subject
to abortion in the hopes that this would help Deeds get elected governor. In 2010 Martha Coakley was losing the debate over Obamacare to Scott Brown. She tried to change the subject to Scott Brown supporting a conscience exception that would have allowed Catholic hospitals to opt-out of providing emergency contraception to rape victims while referring them to other medical providers. Deeds and Coakley both lost so it must be said that these strategies failed. But Deeds and Coakley were losing anyway. Changing the subject to abortion and contraception was a Hail Mary play. And as the New England Patriots will tell you, that play usually doesn't work.
So is the Obama administration's mandate that religious hospitals cover contraceptives a desperation play? I doubt it. The timing is off. Deeds and Coakley only tried to switch the subject to abortion/mandated contraception when it was obvious that they were losing to an opponent who had defined himself as within the mainstream of American politics. If you are Obama, and you want to change the conversation to these issues, you don't announce this policy in February when the media is focused on the Republicans clawing each others eyes out. I think the Obama people know that this policy announcement is a net negative to his reelection. I think they announced this mandate because they think it is good policy and because they thought it wouldn't be much of a voting issue in November. They might be rethinking that second assumption. I think it shows that they are pretty confident that they will beat any of the current Republican candidates. It is also just a taste of what we can expect in an Obama second term.