, WASHINGTON, Feb 8 – The US election that was supposed to be about jobs and economic blight has suddenly been swamped by perennial culture war feuds on social issues like female fertility and gay rights.
With a row over a corporate campaign cash grab by backers of President Barack Obama also sucking up media oxygen, White House hopes of trumpeting stirring economy data from last week were drowned out.
Aides were left trying to extricate Obama from a row of their own making, over contraception, which has seen the president condemned from Catholic pulpits in swing states he needs to win reelection in November.
Obama has always struggled to connect with white, conservative, blue-collar voters who are sometimes Catholics, so the latest social rows give the White House real cause for concern.
On Wednesday, congressional Republicans turned up the heat on the president, with House speaker John Boehner, from swing state Ohio, accusing him of mounting an “unambiguous attack on religious freedom.”
The fight erupted when the administration decided not to exempt religious employers from a requirement under its health reform law that work-based insurance plans offer women coverage for contraception.
Catholic leaders were outraged — though houses of worship were exempt — and Republican senators John McCain and Jon Kyl Wednesday charged that Obama had trampled “the rights of faith-based organizations” like teaching hospitals or educational establishments.
Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, hoping to shore up his standing with conservatives, also slammed Obama.
“We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience,” he said.
Republicans see a chance to highlight the unpopular health care law and to charge that Obama favors a predatory government, while the Obama camp seems to be looking for a way out.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” Obama advisor David Axelrod told MSNBC.
A senior White House official said Obama wanted all women to get access to care and benefits, wherever they worked, and cited surveys showing more than 90 percent of Catholic women use contraception.
Obama’s former deputy communications director Jen Psaki, in a Huffington Post column, meanwhile laid into the president’s critics.
“I am a Catholic, I am a Democrat and I am a woman. I am also someone who if push came to shove can afford to pay over the counter for birth control,” Psaki wrote.
“But the false outcry this week over the need to cover birth control has made me raving mad. And I am shocked it has not enraged more women across this country, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.”
Meanwhile, victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado by Republican Rick Santorum, a Catholic who is a favorite of evangelicals and social conservatives, on Tuesday also threw social issues back onto the agenda.
As it struggled to parry Republican claims Obama was “anti-religion,” the White House faced another social storm when a federal appeals court struck down a California law that strips gays and lesbians of the right to marry.
Aides were drawn into conversations they are trying to avoid in an election year on Obama’s “evolving” position on gay marriage.
Obama is walking a thin line between support for gay rights — touted by his liberal support base — and opposition to same-sex marriage among conservative Democrats and independents in swing states.
For months, the theme of November’s election clash between Obama and his future Republican foe has been his record on the economy.
But the social rows recall elections in 2000 and 2004 when Republicans used issues like gay marriage to peel away Democratic support in battleground states like Ohio.
The Obama camp has also been deflected by a furor over the president’s decision to reverse course and back a “super PAC” committee — to match Republican funds allowed to raise unlimited cash from corporations.
The president had railed against a Supreme Court decision which gutted campaign finance laws and allowed such funds to explicitly endorse or oppose federal candidates but changed course this week, sparking cries of hypocrisy.