President Obama attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast yesterday and used the opportunity to tout the reconstitution and expansion of George W. Bush's Office on Faith Based Initiatives. In his remarks the president said he didn't want to favor one religion over another, or "even religious groups over secular groups." But in fact, that's just what he's doing.
National women's organizations have been lobbying Obama, who has said he is a feminist, to reopen the White House Office on Women's Issues. So far the answer is a big fat no - women's concerns will be under the already swamped Office of Public Liaison. That's a tiny shop that's chronically understaffed and overstretched. Even with the best intentions, there's almost no chance they can interface with women's advocates in a meaningful way, much less shape policy to overcome the many setbacks we inherited from the Bush years.
In a direct insult to women, George W. Bush closed the Clinton-era White House Office on Women's Issues in his first week, then ensconced the first-ever church/state liaison office in the same space. For our new president to "keep the faith" with religious groups while short-shrifting women is equally insulting. There is no doubt that women are responsible for his election. Females went for Obama by 56 percent to McCain's 43 percent, while men split their votes about evenly. The Jesus crowd, on the other hand, voted 60% against the president.
The newly constituted "office for faith-based programs and community partnerships" will be headed by Joshua DuBois, a 26-year-old Pentecostal preacher and Obama confidant, who will preside over a task force of 25 or so religious and community leaders. This group will give DuBois advice, which will presumably be passed on to the president.
To accord this advisory panel so much power, while relegating women to the margins, speaks volumes. Religious groups gained a lot from the Bush years - access to the White House, and millions of dollars in federal money, some of which was used to proselytize. And don't forget, almost all faiths consider women second class citizens; many actively campaign against affirmative action, the Women's Equality Amendment, the international human rights treaty for women known as CEDAW, and civil rights for gays and lesbians. Keeping this act going - even if it is broadened to include "community members" - is not the change women voted for.
It's not too late for President Obama to change his mind and give the majority - women - a place at the table by re-opening the White House Office on Women's Issues. If he really does support women as he claims, restoring the losses of the last eight years on reproductive rights, enforcement of Title IX, Medicaid funding, and employment protections should be given a higher priority than keeping the religious right happy for what promises to be a very short honeymoon.
Women's groups are elated that the Texans are finally out of the White House. But if the new president wants their continuing loyalty, he ought to follow some good ol' Texas advice: Dance with the one that brung ya.
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