Women played a huge role in propelling President Barack Obama to victory during the 2008 elections, supporting him more strongly than men by seven percentage points. His record on women's issues as president, however, has been spotty, and major women's rights organizations are warning that if he makes the wrong decision on birth control coverage in the coming weeks, it could cost him the election in 2012.
Many progressive women's groups who supported Obama throughout his campaign and presidency felt betrayed last week when, without any warning, his administration decided to overturn the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration and limit access to Plan B One-Step, a popular emergency contraception pill. Whether or not the president had anything to do with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' decision, the fact remains that he promised in 2009 that his administration, unlike that of President George W. Bush, would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
Americans of all demographics overwhelmingly support access to birth control, which is why the Plan B decision especially surprising to women's health advocates and has severely dented his support among them. Although progressive women still perceive the GOP candidates' positions on the issues they care about as more damaging, the problem, they say, is voter enthusiasm.
"I think the women of this country are not disappointed, they're infuriated," Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, told HuffPost. "I'm gonna tell you the truth -- we're supporting President Obama as a means to get better alternatives. It's not like we think he's great for women, but we know we need to move in that direction, and frankly in this moment women must be engaged and must be mobilized to vote for the candidate that is a stepping stone toward real equality, even though there's no candidate that represents that now."
"The Plan B decision was a missed opportunity for Obama to strengthen his record on women's reproductive issues," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "As we're looking at 2012, we have a key segment of women's voters, and it's our job to show them the clear difference between President Obama and the alternatives. The decision last week makes it harder for us to do that."
Obama's reelection campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Keeping women's groups in the dark about HHS's decision and then surprising them with it also appears to have been a very bad political move for Obama. Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said she personally told Barack and Michele Obama at the White House Hanukkah party last week that she was upset about the decision, mainly because the NCJW "wasn't given a heads up" that it was going to go that way. Kaufman's frustration over the element of surprise echoes that of many other women's groups, who have been working tirelessly to mobilize the women who make up Obama's base.
"There was a series of fundraisers last month where Obama emphasized that he really cared about women and knew he was only going to be able to win if there was a substantial gender gap in the electorate," said Jennifer Lawless, director of American University's Women & Politics Institute. "When you then make a decision like this, or support Kathleen Sebelius' decision, and you don't alert any of these groups who mobilize your constituents for you that you're going to do that, that undercuts the notion that you care."
Now, Obama has what many perceive to be an even bigger decision coming up: whether to expand the refusal clause on birth control coverage and allow religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, to deny their female employees the same birth control coverage that every other woman in America will be guaranteed.
The stakes for this decision are high. Democratic women in Congress held fire on the administration for the Plan B decision last week because they are waiting to see what he decides to do on birth control coverage, which directly affects millions of women's ability to afford contraception.
Obama has met at least twice with the powerful Catholic bishop lobby, and if he decides to listen to them on birth control, it could hurt his standing among women voters.
"I think all eyes will be on this decision," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "Politics is emotional as well as rational. It's not all numbers and adding everything up, and I think his decisions on birth control could seriously dampen enthusiasm."
"Everyone is very, very concerned about what the level of passion is going to be for any given candidate," Kaufman told HuffPost, "and this birth control issue is going to be a major piece of women's enthusiasm for Obama going forward."
According to recent polling, the threat to Obama's reelection is very real: A survey released on November 9 by NARAL Pro-Choice America shows that reproductive rights are a major issue of concern among female voters who voted for Obama in 2008 but are not currently supporting him. More than half of the women defectors surveyed said they want Obama to fight to protect women's abortion rights even if it makes it harder to build a consensus and get the economy going, and nearly 80 percent said they would not vote for a candidate who wants to cut off funding for family planning and access to birth control.
Eight million more women than men voted for Obama in 2008, not only because he supports reproductive rights and family planning, but because he directly addressed a wide range of issues women care about in his campaign speeches, such as pay equity, paid maternity leave and health insurance for children.
As president, Obama has fulfilled many, but not all, of these promises. He repealed the Global Gag Rule, which blocks all U.S. monetary assistance to international health organizations that counsel women on abortions. He refused to compromise with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on federal funding for family planning. He signed equal pay legislation. He passed a health care reform bill that covers maternity care and basic preventative health services for women, including cancer screenings and birth control, and prevents health plans from charging women more than men for the same coverage. He appointed a record number of women to positions on federal courts.
But the president has also faltered, at times, on women's issues. He signed an executive order in 2010 that restricted women from using their own private funds to pay for abortion coverage, despite having a Democratic majority in the House and Senate at the time. His administration restricted access to Plan B without any pressure from Republicans in Congress, and women have suffered a relatively weak recovery from the recession under Obama's leadership.
"There's a feminization of poverty in this country, so to the extent that we can't create more jobs and the economy continues to falter, that's going to disproportionately affect women," Lawless said. "Women tend to be the heads of single-parent households and were a disproportionate number of subprime loan recipients, so any policy that doesn't adequately overturn what's been done in the last couple of years works to women's detriment."
The problem is that the Republican candidates do not provide an appealing alternative on those particular issues -- across the board, they oppose federal funding for family planning and abortion rights, they want to cut spending on entitlement programs that mainly serve and employ women, and they want to repeal health care reform. So in the absence of a competitive Democratic primary that would force Obama to be better on women's issues than another progressive candidate, left-leaning women's activists have little leverage.
The only strategy women's groups can employ now, they say, is to motivate women to vote for Obama and to elect more female candidates to Congress, in hopes that they will soon see a presidential candidate who's stronger on women's issues.
"I want to emphasize that my view is not, 'Oh gosh, I'll take the lesser of two evils.' That is not where my organization is," said O'Neill. "We're going have to build a long-term plan to elect politicians that actually will support women, will not throw us under the bus and play politics with women's health, and you don't get to that plan by sitting back and not voting."
O'Neill said NOW's political action committee is going to shift its focus toward electing progressive women, such as Elizabeth Warren, to Congress, which will hopefully mobilize women voters to also cast a ballot for president.
With his upcoming decision on birth control, Obama has a chance to repair his relationship with feminist organizations and start to rebuild the enthusiasm from women that won him the election in 2008. To that end, women's advocacy groups hope to remind him of their importance.
"The recipe isn't just the candidate — it's the enthusiasm and who's out there telling the story," said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood. "Obama's got smart people over there, and they know they can't take women and the organizations who talk to women for granted. Anyone in 2012 who doesn't see the importance of women turning out and generating that gender gap isn't looking at the data right."