“Women are not an interest group. You should not be treated that way,” Barack Obama said on Friday morning. It was an admirable sentiment, but the statement was disingenuous on its face. Women are an interest group, and will be until the last vestiges of gender discrimination are eradicated from American society. And Obama, by holding a forum on women and the economy, was treating them precisely that way.
The White House didn’t bill the forum as a political event. But of course it was, and not just because chants of “four more years” rang out in the crowd. For many months, Democrats have viewed their advantage with female voters as integral to Obama’s re-election chances. They have used the attacks on Sandra Fluke, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and limit contraception, and talk of trans-vaginal ultrasounds to buttress their case that Republicans have launched a “war on women.”
Only yesterday, Democrats cranked up the outrage machine to savage RNC chairman Reince Priebus for comparing women to caterpillars. (Priebus did no such thing.) For outfits like the DNC, every day spent blasting the GOP’s hostility to women’s rights is a political point scored, as well as an opportunity to tether presumptive nominee Mitt Romney to those policies. “Does he stand with Reince Priebus, the leader of the Republican Party, when he compares the debate over vital health care services to a war on insects?” Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, asked in a statement.
Those points have been adding up lately. Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008 was spurred by a 12-point edge among females, and he appears poised to expand that gap this fall. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll of key swing states, Obama’s nine-point edge over Romney was buoyed by a yawning 18-point lead among women, including a 2-to-1 advantage among women under 50, a demographic with which Obama has made significant strides in the past six weeks. The Republican brand has eroded with women during the past two years. As RealClearPolitics notes, the two parties divvied up the female vote, 49% to 48%, in the 2010 midterm elections, which the GOP won in a rout. Another even split would be catastrophic for the Democrats’ hopes to hold the White House in November.
Which is why Obama was on stage Friday morning, flanked by a tableau of women, talking about the outsize contributions they make in every aspect of American life. It’s why White House staff held a briefing Thursday to tell reporters that the cuts to Medicare and Social Security in the House Republican budget would be particularly damaging to women’s health, as would the Republican campaign to repeal his health-care overhaul. To coincide with the event, the White House released a report by the White House Council on Women and Girls that illustrates “the depth and breadth of the President’s commitment to the lives of women and girls,” write the council’s top officials, Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen. This purportedly apolitical forum was nakedly political.
Which by no means suggests it wasn’t warranted. As TIME pointed out in a recent cover story called “The Richer Sex,” women comprise half our work force. They enroll in college at higher rates and earn more advanced degrees. Forty percent of working wives make more money than their husbands, a leap of more than 50% over two decades. All of these are undeniable signs of progress toward gender equality. But that laudable goal hasn’t yet been achieved — not when women still earn 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.
No one can say Obama’s words of praise and encouragement for women’s interests aren’t heartfelt. But he is looking out for his own interests, too.