Dozens of Catholic groups cried foul. Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, who had invited Obama to give the commencement address at the school in 2009 over the objections of many Catholic bishops, wrote the president a letter contending that the rule would violate religious freedom. As the initial uproar made its way into the press, some of the administration’s prominent Catholics began to fret. “Now we’re fighting the Catholics?” defense secretary Leon Panetta complained to Daley by phone. “What’s going on here?”
Dolan was a towering figure in the church, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a cagey political operator. Biden knew him well. In early November, with Dolan planning to be in town ahead of the conference’s annual plenary, the VP slipped the archbishop’s name onto Obama’s schedule—without alerting the White House staff. Obama walked into the meeting with little preparation, believing it would be about a range of issues—then found himself cornered on contraception. He hadn’t analyzed the arguments surrounding the exemption in detail, let alone reached a conclusion. On top of that, he was sympathetic to the church’s position. Now on the spot, feeling ambushed, Obama edged out over the tips of his skis, telling Dolan he would seek a solution agreeable to both sides. That was all the pink-cheeked prelate needed to box Obama in.
On November 14, Dolan told reporters at the plenary about the meeting, describing it as “extraordinarily friendly” and adding that Obama had been “very sensitive” to church concerns over the contraceptive mandate. “He was very ardent in his desire to assure me that this is something he will look long and hard at. And I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered.” The signal that the White House was considering widening the exemption touched off a tizzy. With Obama having left on a trip to Asia, congressional Democrats burned up the phone lines on conference calls with Rouse and Jarrett, telling them it was crazy for a pro-choice president to be wavering this way. In a tense meeting with Daley, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards threatened that the group would run ads against Obama if he abandoned Sebelius’s original plan.
Daley, Biden, and Biden’s staff pushed back hard. We’ll lose Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Catholic vote, and the election, they blustered. Axelrod, Messina, and Plouffe thought that the old-timers were out of their minds. Biden and Daley had no data to back up the scare talk—just instinct, pure gut. And in their obsession with the Catholic vote, they were ignoring the constituency that really mattered to Obama’s prospects: unmarried women, of whom the vast majority, including Catholics, favored the idea of contraceptives being included in health care plans. Obama discerned a lot of Beau in Obama. They’re cool, they’re cerebral, they keep their passions in check—they’re the modern politician, he thought. And while Biden père was none of those things,
On the issue of contraception, however, they remained in different places. In mid-January, after weeks of internal deliberations, Obama was preparing to make a final decision on the religious exemption; he was sticking with the narrow rule Sebelius had put forward. Biden still thought it a terrible mistake, and told Obama so. The president had avoided culture wars in 2008, much to his advantage. Now he was on the brink of engulfing himself in one, not just due to the ruling itself but by going back on his word to Dolan. Biden knew the archbishop well enough to predict that it would not be pretty. Under a headline accusing Obama of a “breach of faith,” Washington Post columnist and reliable White House defender E. J. Dionne blistered the president for “utterly botch[ing]” the decision and hit him squarely in the solar plexus of his political vanity. “This might not be so surprising if Obama had presented himself as a conventional secular liberal,” Dionne wrote. “But he has always held himself to a more inclusive standard.”