Sunday, February 12, 2012

Political leadership and the contraception contretemps

Many journalists have wondered why and how the Obama administration erred in first ruling that religious organizations had to offer their employees contraception services. Catholic supporters on the left had warned Obama about the political consequences of such a ruling. In other words, the blow-back was predicted.  Republicans framed the issue as an attack on religious liberty. Equally puzzling, the compromise, which the Obama administration hastily put together, had been discussed at length before the ruling was first pronounced; namely follow Hawaii’s example by requiring that insurers, rather than employers, offer contraceptive-service benefits.

I don’t want to discuss the political and ethical issues this contretemps has stirred up. But I am interested in the decision-making process that shaped it.  How and why do savvy leaders stumble, when in retrospect their error seems obvious, and moreover they are forewarned?

I think this incident highlights some of the tensions that suffuse the machinery of decision-making. Early on it seemed that the issue of providing contraception services was framed technically as a question of how to implement the new health care legislation. As Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded my nuns, noted, “Even though a bunch of us weighed in and said there was this other layer of concern (the politics of religious sensibilities), it’s like it was above where they ordinarily focus, so it just didn't compute." Indeed after the blow-back threatened the administration’s political standing, some Obama appointees argued that they needed a year to work out the required compromise. As one insider noted, despite the blow-back, “administration officials did not feel a sense of urgency (my emphasis).”

One hypothesis is that by framing the issue of contraceptive services as a technical one, how to implement a complicated piece of legislation, administration officials lost touch with its vividness and therefore its emotionality. Urgency is starved when feelings are muted. Obama is vulnerable in this regard. Responding to the  Republicans' and the catholic left's outrage, he said, “I understand some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue. But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way. This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions.” But of course as the blow-back indicated, issues that simulate strong feelings lead people to discount the good will of their opponents. Philosophy, the idea of good and bad replaces pragmatism. Indeed one criticism of Obama as a leader is based on the idea that he is too much the pragmatist.

The machinery of decision-making can also drain an issue of its vividness.  It creates the illusion of an orderly process, suggesting that events unfold logically, according to plan, as means and ends are synchronized.  But leaders make decisions on shifting sands. Implementing health care reform is no doubt a highly technical problem, filled with tradeoffs and complexities. But the administration was implementing the new health care law against a backdrop of questions about Obama’s electability. The recent announcement that unemployment had fallen raised hopes that Obama could yet win re-election.  The new policy on contraception, however, thoughtful, threatened to undermine this newly gained advantage. Moreover, the new policy was announced close to the time when 500 catholic social activists, many of whom were Obama’s allies in the in health care reform debate, would be meeting in Washington. Campbell warned Obama, “that if no compromise had been reached by then, all of them (the activists) would return to their parishes fired up about the contraception mandate.”

The blow-back, which led to Obama's backtracking, was one measure of the administration emotional distance from the electorate. Such distance, in the name of reasonableness, has the paradoxical effect of sustaining a certain level of naiveté. It was striking that after its own allies on the catholic left protested, some administration officials, according to an anonymous insider, imagined reframing the debate from one about religious liberty to one about “the war on women." I think we can safely call this a naïve idea. It overestimated the administration’s power to reframe a visceral and deep-seated debate in our culture, and it failed to account for Obama’s own cautious nature.

The constructive political leader has a to walk along a knife edge, staying emotionally engaged with the electorate while respecting the logic of planning, of adjudicating, and governing reasonably. The rabble-rouser chooses emotion over reason, the technocrat reason over emotion. Who can integrate the two?

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