After a first year in office marked by legislative frustration, declining poll numbers, and rising voter discontent, President Barack Obama is now pursuing a scaled-back agenda for 2010 with one overriding priority: jobs. The two big priorities of the American bishops — immigration and health care, and especially the former — seem to be getting short shrift.
With unemployment hovering around 10 percent, not counting people who’ve stopped looking for work, the bishops undoubtedly are also concerned about jobs. But, as they’ve done for years, they continue to press for their issues. Already since the first of the year they’ve launched an effort to mobilize 19,000 parishes nationwide on behalf of health reform that includes abortion funding restrictions, and have called for speedy congressional action on immigration.
Obama is on record favoring immigration reform, but he did nothing about it in 2009, and immigration was not among the topics last night in his State of the Union speech to Congress. In fairness to the president, it must be said that the kind of reform favored by the bishops, with generous provision for regularizing the status of many people now in the country illegally, stands no chance in Congress now.
As for health care, Obama gave it a plug in last night's speech. But it received nowhere near the attention he's given it previously, and he offered no indication of what he personally might do to help get a bill passed. Currently health care reform is stalled in Congress, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) continue to explore possibilities.
As measured by his words, Obama’s legislative agenda is by no means short on issues. Along with job creation, these include a three-year cap on discretionary programs that account for 17 percent of the federal budget, small-scale but generally attractive measures to benefit the middle class, and some new business tax incentives. But there’s no telling now which of the other things he mentioned he will put presidential muscle behind.
In any case, by comparison with his ambitious objectives of a year ago — health care, environment, financial reform — Obama’s new agenda undoubtedly reflects what John F. Harris of Politico calls “downsized ambitions for a downsized moment in his presidency.” This readjustment reflects Democratic electoral defeats and heightened concern about the midterm elections next November.
Still, Obama unquestionably did lay some glowing rhetoric on health care. “Now is the time to deliver on health care,” he declared.
The bishops said much the same shortly before the president spoke. In a joint letter to Congress dated Jan. 26, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the pro-life committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the bishops' domestic justice and development committee, and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the migration committee, deplored “the moral and policy failure that leaves tens of millions of our sisters and brothers without access to health care.”
But the bishops also said the bills pending in Congress still would leave 18-23 million people uninsured. And they once more criticized the Senate-passed bill’s abortion provisions, which would expand government funding.
A day earlier, many Catholics in Washington were surprised to read a Washington Post story reporting that, along with former Secretary of State Colin Powell and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, has been a “sounding board” for Obama several times in the past year.
Citing White House aides, the newspaper said Cardinal McCarrick has had “several private and sometimes unreported meetings, talking with the president about the Middle East and health care.”
Whether coincidentally or not, USCCB staff indicated late last summer that the White House had suddenly started seeking talks about finding common ground on health care, including the abortion issue. Not long after, the president himself began saying publicly that he wanted to stick to the “status quo” on the matter, which since 1976 has limited government funding for abortion to cases involving rape, incest, and the mother’s life.
The House eventually passed a bill including such a provision. But the Senate in December voted for a version that expands abortion funding, and Obama prefers it to the House bill. This is how matters stand at the moment, with abortion one among many issues contributing to the current impasse. If the president and the cardinal sit down together again any time soon, they should have lots to talk about.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.