Obama, Above the Fray for Now

Obama supporters are beginning to feel more confident, or at least less embarrassed. A year ago, even three months ago, they were thinking: What a confounding, confusing loser this man is. They didn’t bother defending him never mind advancing him. But now they’re starting to get friskier. They believe there’s a new lay to the land: The economy is coming back, at least for now and at least a little; the Republican nominee will emerge so bloodied his victory will hardly be worth having; the Republicans are delving into areas so extreme and off point that by the end Mr. Obama will look like the moderate.

Here is a local Democratic political figure in conversation in New York: When you look at where we were after the crash in 2008-09, you look back and realize that whatever mistakes Mr. Obama made, “He got us through it.” He looked to me for agreement. That’s not really how I see it, I said. “But he got us through it!” Well, I said, in the sense that we’re here and not all dead, yes, but that would be an unusual standard by which to judge a president’s success.

We started to laugh, and he pressed on into foreign affairs. “He got Osama,” he said, “He kept us safe.” I’m not sure if he was knowingly mimicking what Republicans used to say in defense of George W. Bush: There was no second 9/11, “he kept us safe.” That grated badly on Democrats: “Are you kidding? He created catastrophes that will haunt us for decades!” One suspects it’s about to grate badly on Republicans.

Anyway, I heard two memes emerging, subliminal messages of the Obama campaign: “He got us through it” and “He kept us safe.” Or maybe they’re liminal.


It is true the Republican candidates are making the president look better, and part of it has to do with circumstances. They’re locked in battle, full of argument and attack. He gets to be serene, above it all. They’re accusing each other, he’s ignoring them. He pounds away on his issues, they have a thousand issues, a jumble of questions and answers and stands. There is no nominee and so no prioritizing of concerns, and therefore no central meaning. It’s all an acrimonious blur.

Good news: This may be the Republicans’ low point. Bad news: The low point may last until the convention, and through it. It’s all getting a little exhausting. Thus the relatively lackluster debate this week. Everyone looked a little tired, out of gas, each playing a role: Mitt as Fred McMurray in “My Three Sons” in the episode where he’s tired and the kids keep interrupting his nap, Rick as the soulful seminarian who’s sort of defensive. Newt morphed into Grandpa, holding his wrist and smiling.

For almost a year Rick Santorum was made of Teflon. No one bothered to attack him, he’s a nothingburger at 4%, just be nice in preparation for the inevitable moment when he takes the stage and endorses you with an awkward man-hug. Now he’s Velcro, and trapped in a web laid by the administration’s claim that the furor over the ObamaCare mandate isn’t about religious freedom and abortion drugs, it’s about crazy people trying to take away your contraceptives. This is as big a lie as you can tell in politics, and a deeply mischievous one: It not only muddies the waters but adds a new layer of meaningless alarm to the political landscape.

But big lies can do damage unless deftly dealt with. And the mainstream media will help this particular lie along, not only because they’re carrying water and not only because they really do think Republicans are crazy on these issues and like to sit around having secret talks on ways to get CVS not to sell condoms, but because contraceptive use is an issue they can understand. What an abortifacient is and why it is unconstitutional to force the Catholic Church to ensure their provision is not something they really want to delve into. They don’t only have biases, they are, some of them, quite stupid.

But has Mr. Santorum learned anything from his 2006 loss in Pennsylvania? Since then he has gotten used to talking in venues where there was nothing to lose and little at stake (Fox News contributor) or the audience was fully versed in the reasoning behind his beliefs and supportive of them (Ave Maria University). Now he’s struggling with the fact that he’s in the leagues, and the leagues play by Miranda rules: Everything you’ve said can and will be used against you.

Since there’s no hiding from past statements, Mr. Santorum would be well advised to address it all thoughtfully and at length. He should sit down and pour out his thoughts on the extent to which one’s religious beliefs should and do inform one’s political views. Mitt Romney had his 2008 Mormon speech, and JFK his Catholic speech. Time for another. Mr. Santorum might keep this picture in mind as he writes. There’s a guy watching him in an interview, and he likes what he’s hearing. Then he thinks, “Wait—if the economy tanks in 2013 and I put on the news to hear the president’s statement, am I going to hear this guy saying, ‘And another thing that is societally destructive about how America conducts its sexual life is . . .’?” We’re talking about the presidency. No one’s going to hire that guy for the presidency.


Meanwhile the story of the ObamaCare mandate continues.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in essence the leader of the church in America, wrote a letter to the bishops this week saying that religious freedom is “a fundamental right” that “does not depend on any government’s decision to grant it: it is God given.” The president’s decision (including what Mr. Obama calls his “accommodation”) “violates the Constitutional limits on our government” and reduces religious liberty to “a privilege arbitrarily granted by the government.” This reflects, he suggested, “an extreme form of secularism.”

It was a strong letter, making clear the church is not backing down. But since the so-called accommodation, the call-to-action part of the church’s response has been weak. What should Catholics do? What should they know about legislative remedies? Whom should they call? Are the cardinals flooding the Sunday news shows?

There are bills in both the House and the Senate that would beat back the ruling. One may come to a vote next week in the Senate. But members of both houses fear nothing will go forward without full, explicit and vigorous church backing. Some Democrats are pursuing various fig-leaf bills that will give them political cover but not change the basic facts. They do not want to defy the administration or—more important—anger its powerful backers, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, the biggest abortion provider in the United States.

What happens if the ruling stays? Will Catholic Charities close down? Assuming not, how big an annual fine will they have to pay if they refuse to bow to the mandate?

A fine on faith. Who thought they’d live to see that in America?

Will the priests be talking about this on Sunday so the phones of senators are ringing Monday?