Sunday, May 17, 2009
Obama Speech At Notre Dame.
Speech key for Obama with Catholics
By: Carol E. Lee and Jonathan Martin
May 17, 2009 07:03 AM EST
President Barack Obama’s time at Notre Dame Sunday will be brief, but how he handles one of the biggest, most public controversies of his presidency so far could have a lasting impact on his relationship with a key constituency – Catholic voters.
It’s not just the few dozen graduates boycotting Obama’s 20-minute commencement address to protest his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. Or the bus loads of protestors driving in from Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit, activists who might never have voted for Obama in the first place.
The controversy — over a pro-abortion-rights president speaking at the nation’s flagship Catholic university — has in fact drawn wider attention to Obama’s views on a divisive issue. Some experts say that could trickle down to those who supported him as a candidate, threatening to upend a political strategy he has carefully tended for the past two years.
“Where it matters is for the Catholics who may have voted for the president but are anti-abortion,” said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “It’s those groups where the president faces a challenge at Notre Dame and beyond that as well, because it’s possible that he could alienate them if the abortion issue becomes salient.”
Obama courted Catholics by keeping the focus on bringing pro- and anti-abortion rights groups together to reduce the number of abortions. He talked of depoliticizing a divisive issue that was at the heart of the “culture wars” Obama sought to avoid.
His stance helped him win over more religious Catholics, too, who liked his policies on issues such as the economy and health care, and saw him as moderate enough on abortion that they were comfortable supporting him.
But some of Obama’s policy decisions and appointments since take office have upset some in the anti-abortion community – and could put him in a situation where renewed disagreement on this one issue sours support from Catholics that was based on his broader platform.
The White House knows that Obama’s majority support among Catholics helped him get elected – he beat Sen. John McCain 54 percent to 45 percent among Catholic voters — and officials have stepped up their efforts to reach out to them since the Notre Dame controversy began in March.
But if the White House once hoped the speech was another way for Obama to reach out to this key constituency, the address instead is likely to be overshadowed by the public outcry, and in a state that Obama carried in the fall, Indiana.
White House Communications Director Anita Dunn declined to say whether administration officials were taken aback by the strong opposition and suggested the president would, in keeping with his political approach, use the moment to try to forge consensus.
"He doesn’t view this as a distraction," Dunn said. "He sees it as an opportunity."
He’s not the only one. Obama’s speech at Notre Dame has become an outlet for anti-abortion groups who have been waiting for a chance to pounce on a president they view as far left on the abortion issue.
In effect, they’re forcing him into a fight he never wanted to have.
“Barack Obama made no secret of trying to win over Catholics and Evangelicals,” said Jill Stanek, an anti-abortion blogger. “We’re trying to take that territory back.”
Obama will touch on the controversy in his speech, White House officials say, but he’ll do so in the context of saying that the students are graduating at a time when they need to come together and rise above old-style politics to move forward.
One administration official described it by saying Obama is not going to South Bend to take on the abortion issue. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, “The president will obviously make mention of the debate that's been had.”
The demonstrations will greet Obama almost as soon as he arrives on campus. Organizers say there will be a picket line near the entrance of Notre Dame, so anybody who gets off the interstate will see it. Already, airplanes have been carrying banners featuring aborted babies, and trucks doubling as billboards targeting Obama on abortion have been doing loops around the campus. Some protestors have been arrested.
During the actual commencement, a few dozen students and their families will hold an alternative ceremony.
“A commencement should not be a political arena,” explained Mary Daly, a Notre Dame graduate who is leading the student boycott. “It’s not the place for a dialogue.”
Obama still has considerable support among Catholics. A recent Pew survey showed 50 percent of Catholics surveyed think Notre Dame was right to invite him to speak, while 28 percent disagreed with the invitation.
But Obama’s support has dropped among certain groups, including white Catholics who attend mass regularly, according to Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In February, two-thirds of white Catholics who attend mass every week approved of his job performance, and now less than half do, Smith said.
Obama also comes to Notre Dame as a new Gallup poll found that for the first time, the majority of Americans are anti-abortion.
Obama has sought to position himself well amid the changing sentiment.
Politically, Dunn pointed out, Obama has made clear to anti-abortion voters that they are welcome in the Democratic fold. Obama’s convention platform was amended to include references to pre- and post-natal care and adoption – ways "to reduce the need for abortions.”
Obama also gave his anti-abortion colleague, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Penn) a prominent speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention, 16 years after Casey’s father, the former Pennsylvania governor, was denied a convention speech.
The younger Casey ardently defended Obama, whom he endorsed at a key moment last year in the Democratic primary.
"He could be invited to speak and people could say that they disagree,” Casey said. "But the idea that you can’t appear on the campus of a Catholic college because you have a disagreement, even on something as important as this issue, I don’t think it’s good for school or the church.”
Casey said the opposition to Obama’s speech is "rooted in partisanship."
"It's people who didn't vote for him, don't support him and want to use this to register their disappointment," he said.
Others disagree and say Obama is increasingly alienating Catholics who voted for him in November.
“There’s a lot of buyer’s remorse growing out there,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center who recently joined Catholic leaders in urging Obama to remove Harry Knox from his White House advisory council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, charging that Knox made anti-Catholic remarks.
“The anger is growing,” he said. “And the sense of outrage is growing because people are seeing the Obama administration picking unnecessary fights and challenging Catholics to political duels.”
Bozell won’t be voicing his protest at Notre Dame. But for those who are, like Stanek, the more immediate goal is “to make Barack Obama radioactive on any Catholic college campus,” she said.
© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC