Peace and Persuasion

Of all the domestic pursuits of Obama's first year, his common ground efforts on abortion have possibly been the most thankless. At some points it appeared the only common ground he had inspired was to unite both sides against it. Yet, each has much to gain by Obama's peace plans.

Obama's mission may be to usher in a new way to think about political conflict - an aspiration so lofty it earned him the Nobel Prize for the aspiration alone. His goal seems to be to appeal to and, simultaneously, to foster a moderate middle, a reasonable group that can talk to, rather than past, each other. If he's going to succeed in the abortion conflict he's first got to confront those who perceive common ground as a threat.

Obama's message has met with resistance, not only from the extreme right which reflexively opposes everything he does, but liberals too have been hesitant, and even distrustful, of common ground language. Rev. Carlton Veazey, of the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice, called attempts at common ground "troubling." Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, suggests history is doomed to repeat itself summarizing plainly, "I tried a common-ground thing in 1979."

The pro-choice movement has reason to be cautious. For many pro-choicers, there's no evidence to suggest the anti-abortion establishment is suddenly going to embrace prevention of unintended pregnancy (there's not one pro-life group in the US that supports contraception after all) or rally behind supports for struggling families (those voting against social programs on which struggling families support, like WIC, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, Head Start, are almost exclusively pro-life elected officials). The May murder of Dr. Tiller remains fresh in our minds--so joint anti-violence efforts, while critically needed, feel a little hard to picture. The health care reform debate, with abortion serving as the primary derailing issue, offers another opportunity to grow jaded about common ground prospects.

But the search for common ground offers a rare opportunity. Obama has, if not awakened, then given voice to what appears to be a long silent majority of reasonable pro-life Americans. His common ground call has appealed to moderate pro-lifers most of whom support contraception and sex education, even if they don't trumpet it. And, most importantly, Obama's common ground charge may, at last, be pushing to the margins the extremists who have for so long dominated the headlines (and the fundraising) on the right.

Twice as many young white evangelicals voted for Obama than did for Kerry in 2006 (32% vs. 16%) and Obama also won the majority of the Catholic vote. Undecided voters were moved by Obama's common ground vision. Indeed, the majority of Americans, including those affiliated with traditionally pro-life faiths, believe in common ground. According to a 2008 poll by Faith in Public Life, 53% of Americans believe political leaders can find common ground while staying true to their core beliefs. Majorities of white mainline Protestants (59%), Catholics (55%), and the unaffiliated (52%) believe common ground on abortion is truly possible.

What's troubling is that Obama has come up short in appealing to the very liberals who have been most receptive to his policies and his ambitions. And that could be unfortunate for the left leaning as well as for Obama. After all, Obama's broad strokes common ground plan reads like the agenda of a Feminist Majority conference: Preventing unintended pregnancy; supporting poor women with wanted pregnancies; expanding reproductive choice by making adoption more available; improving maternal and infant health; preventing violence in the abortion conflict. Inroads in any one of these areas, let alone all of them, would be worth the break from hostilities. Hardliners on the right would be unlikely to mount an opposition effort to any either. With his speech at Notre Dame, Obama spoke directly to pro-life Americans. He was not dissuaded by extremist groups' protests over his appearance or their attempts to portray him as "the most pro-abortion president ever." One of Obama's greatest talents as a leader is his deep trust in the American public's ability to see through artifice and hyperbole. As ABC News reported, Obama went to Notre Dame and "entered the arena to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from many in the crowd of 12,000." Despite what the anti-abortion protests outside would suggest, the vast majority of pro-life people there were open to what he had to say and could see there are shared goals pro-lifers and pro-choicers seek. He didn't allow the extremists shouting outside the door to define the day.

There are many more such "teachable moments," as Obama himself likes to say, that haven't been taken full advantage of. Obama must continue to speak directly to the pro-life public, translate how his policies serve their greater goals. Take health care reform. The states with the most uninsured tend to also be the most "pro-life" politically giving the pro-life campaigns against health care reform a disturbing angle. Industrialized nations that provide their citizens with universal health insurance (the US is the only one that does not), like those of Western and Northern Europe, have the lowest abortion rates in the world-- that's unlikely to be a coincidence. Pro-life Americans are able to do the math when informed that it costs a pregnant woman without health insurance $6,000-$8,000 for the delivery alone while an abortion will cost her about $400. The pragmatic pro-lifer gets it and is interested in more constructive ways to be pro-life than yelling while holding a sign. Obama can tap that desire.

Common ground is a great idea and a great possibility. The task ahead for Obama is to first convince those who stand to benefit the most by it.

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