This essay looks at the manner in which President Obama has handled two issues mostly affecting women -- abortion rights and sexual assaults in the military – raising questions about the disparity between his earnest rhetoric and the effects of his policies.
The essay begins with a damaging development which appears to threaten prosecutions of sexual assault in the military.
The essay concludes with brief remarks about the implications of White House policy on wider national and international matters.
The issue of sexual assaults in the military rose to media prominence in the spring of 2013 largely due to news of a Pentagon study that estimated that 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2012 up from 19,000 in 2011. In May, NY Senator Kirsten Gillebrand stirred debate when she grilled military brass in a Senate hearing and pressed for removing sexual assault prosecutions out of the military chain of command.
President Obama, in turn, made a strong public statement supporting the victims of sexual abuse at a press conference. Weeks later a front page story in the New York Times informed readers that “Remark by Obama Complicates Military Sexual Assault Trials.” The word “complicates” actually seemed to downplay the effect of the president’s remark since the Times’ story indicated that it could mean an end to “almost all” prosecutions for sexual assault in the military.
What did the president say?
Answering a reporter’s question, Mr. Obama said that those who commit sexual assault in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged.” While these directions may have seemed appropriate to a general audience, the Times explained that Obama’s remark “mudd[ied] legal cases across the country” because “Mr. Obama’s words as commander in chief amounted to ‘unlawful command influence,’ tainting trials as a result.” The Times report explained that the bulk if not all prosecutions for sexual assault in the military are now under question because “defense lawyers will seize on the president’s call for an automatic dishonorable discharge…arguing that his words will affect their cases.”
The Times cited five cases where the president’s remark has already had the effect of “complicating” matters, including one at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where “a judge dismissed charges of sexual assault against an Army officer, noting the command influence issue.”
The president’s statement raises the question of his intentions. Did he purposefully enumerate the various penalties in order to squelch such military prosecutions? The main piece of evidence is the unusual specificity of his instructions.
President Obama said offenders should be:
stripped of their positions,
The Times article cites a precedent could have provided him with a suggestion on how to proceed if he wished to block these cases.
The president’s comments have not been the only ones cited as influencing sexual assault cases. Last year, lawyers in more than 60 Marine Corps sexual assault cases filed motions claiming “unlawful command influence” because of a series of remarks made by Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, according to a McClatchy-Tribune news report.
If the president really intended to block military prosecutions in these cases, he would be reinforcing his first term policy when there was no detectable White House action to address the problem.
In any event, the President’s unguarded statement is one of a number of examples where, largely under the radar, he seems to be pursuing Republican rather than Democrat objectives on issues of particular interest to women, especially with regard to abortion rights and reproductive services.
Ronald Reagan and Abortion Rights,
Ronald Reagan’s high profile support of the anti-abortion movement was arguably the key turning point on the road to the evisceration of abortion rights in the U.S. President Reagan’s consistent championship of the movement gave the somewhat disreputable anti-abortion forces a new legitimacy. Since then they have moved from strength to strength.
A generation and a half later, when Republicans took lop-sided control of many governorships and statehouses in the 2010 election, another a decisive nail was driven into the coffin of personal freedom. Although women in the U.S. are nominally free to obtain abortions, their practical access has been narrowing decade by decade. According to a mid 2012 report, a third of women of reproductive age resided in one of the 87 percent of U.S. counties without an abortion provider. And only seven states have abortion providers in more than 50 percent of their counties. (Search: lack of abortion providers in U.S.)
A self- proclaimed fan of Ronald Reagan, President Obama, over the years has largely refrained from any practical steps in support women’s concerns, and he has also presided over what has amounted to the greatest threat to their rights: the Republican takeover of state legislative seats in the 2010 election. In addition to gaining 63 House seats, and taking control of the House, Republicans in 2010 seized a total of 680 legislative seats, breaking the previous record when Democrats added 628 such seats in 1974 in the aftermath of Watergate. Five states, Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina and Alabama saw both state legislative chambers switch from Democrat to Republican. (United States elections, 2010)
Once again the question of Obama’s motivations arises. President Obama came into office at one of those unique moments of history when he had a powerful reformist wind at his back. Had he so chosen, he could have marshaled his political capital and put into effect much of the change and hope for which America and the world was so desperate. In the event, however, the 44th president turned his back on such Democratic priorities as: accountability for the crimes of the previous administration, Medicare for all, diplomatic rather than military solutions in foreign hot spots; putting a brake on Big Brother snooping, accountability for bankster crimes and reform of Wall Street; aid to millions of underwater homeowners and those in danger of foreclosure; real movement on climate change, etc., etc.
Had he gone in the direction many of his supporters hoped and expected it’s likely that, as FDR before him, he would have bolstered his Democratic majorities instead of presiding over the calamitous Party reversals that eventuated. The question is not so much whether President Obama deliberately intended a Republican takeover of the House and perhaps also the Senate, but rather one of responsibility. Was it not predictable that if Obama had the opportunity to institute a reformist agenda and chose not to, then his supporters would be confused and his opponents energized?
The Abortion Propaganda war
Those fighting to maintain abortion rights in the U.S. have largely lost the propaganda war from the moment when anti-abortion forces successfully made the issue the life of the unborn child. Focusing on the unborn effectively marginalizes the rights of women, making it far more difficult for many to compete socially, economically and politically. The larger society is also negatively impacted since the exclusion of women from so many productive spheres restricts their opportunity to contribute.
Pro-abortion forces have had difficulty pushing back against the totalitarian impulse to repress women, to lock them in their poverty and to handcuff them politically. Understanding the authoritarian anti-abortion movement for what it is, would also help shine a light on the Catholic Church’s exactly similar motives in prohibiting most forms of contraception and abortion services. The Church has a financial and political stake in limiting the options of their constituency, believing that repression and lack of education and opportunity helps to maintain its power.
Many of those fighting against the abortion rights of women will protest that their motives are sincere and deeply felt. Is it fair to charge many of the grassroots right to life supporters with same authoritarian motivations of many politicians, Church leaders and other stakeholders? The answer may be to note the disparity between their declared devotion to the human rights of the unborn with their tendency to oppose government assistance for pregnant women and their children once they are born.
There are always reasons that people choose one side or another, one political party or another, one policy or another. The key is to look not at what people profess, but at the effects of the policies they advocate.
President Obama and Abortion
Is there a connection between President’s Obama’s gaffe with regard to sexual assault in the military and his position on abortion? As a Democrat, President Obama is at least nominally 100% supportive of a woman’s right to choose. But on the margins he has preferred, on more than one occasion, to snip away at abortion rights. The first such noticeable occasion was on the occasion of the “compromise” he struck with Republicans in the spring of 2011 over the remainder of the 2011 budget.
One wonders, first of all, why such legislation couldn’t have been passed routinely in 2010 when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress instead of waiting until Obama would be forced to bargain with the House Majority Leader and other Republicans. A similar point was made by none other than Bill Clinton in his 2011 book, Back to Work, where he asked why the country had to go through four months of angst over the issue of raising the federal debt ceiling when appropriate legislation could have been passed when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress in 2010.
The “compromise” that President Obama struck on the remainder of the 2011 budget included agreeing to $38 billion in cuts to Democratic priorities like nutrition for poor women and children. In addition, to the apparent surprise and delight of Republicans, he allowed language barring the District of Columbia from using its own tax dollars to finance abortions.
Democratic outrage at the details of President Obama’s compromise and the way it was reached behind closed doors with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker, John Boehner, seemed to reach a peak in the spring of 2011.
Democratic House members' fury at the debt ceiling deal Obama “negotiated” with the House Republicans was reflected in a tweet by Eldridge Cleaver a mild mannered Democrat from Missouri who fretted about the way in which the $38 billion in cutbacks would hurt the most vulnerable Americans.” We don’t have enough time to talk about the ways it violates our values,” he told The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast quoted a senior Democratic lawmaker who seemed to sum up the outrage of many of his colleagues. “I have been very disappointed in the administration to the point where I’m embarrassed that I endorsed him”…“It’s so bad that some of us are thinking, is there some way we can replace him? How do you get rid of this guy?”
The morning after pill
Had Obama been a Republican president his opposition to allowing unrestricted sales of the morning after pill would not have been notable. As it is, his opposition to such sales dismayed many for whom the controversy was more than a passing headline. In December 2011, just as the Food And Drug Agency (FDA) was about to approve over-the-counter availability without restriction, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA, preventing young girls from purchasing the pill on their own. President Obama stated that he agreed with Secretary Sebelius’s decision.
After federal judge Edward Korman (appointed by Ronald Reagan), in blunt language , overruled the administration, writing that it had behaved ”in bad faith,” the Obama administration backed down and allowed over the counter sales for one type of morning after pill, known as Plan B One Step. Nevertheless the administration continues to use its remaining power to oppose the cheaper two-pill version, preferring to restrict sales to young girls. The administration says they are concerned that they might not understand how to take two pills.
Whose side is he on?
The policies that discourage, even outrage many of President Obama’s current and former supporters are not limited to the relatively narrow issues of sexual assault in the military and abortion rights. The Snowden/NSA surveillance revelations along with the Obama administration’s bitter, even ferocious attacks on whistleblowers have helped unmask some of the president’s positions on freedom of the press, civil liberties, and fourth amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Such policies also call to mind the administration’s operation in a zone free of laws, such as his escalation of the Bush-Cheney drone attack program, the reported 75-85 special operations squads (including the Joint Special Operations Command –JSOC) engaged in assassination and destabilization around the world (including the reintroduction of such special forces assassination teams into Iraq); the administration’s apparent determination to indefinitely maintain a core group of prisoners at Guantanamo prison, and more such hard line positions on “terror “and imperial reach. President Obama’s policies on women and the poor are only somewhat more subtle and less high profile examples of the right-wing, authoritarian orientation of his regime.
Paraphrasing an anonymous senior Democrat at the height of Party revulsion with his tactics: “Who is this guy?”
A New York Times July 2013 front page story on the Republican’s upcoming “offensive on Obama’s goals” outlined deep cuts that Republicans say they plan to make to administration priorities. The Times cited such cuts as 34% to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget; 50% cut to the National Endowment for the Arts and humanities, 27% reduction to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The House bill also zeroes out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, cuts education grants for poor students by 16% and the Labor Department by 13%.
Many Democrats in Congress will certainly fight to maintain their budget priorities. The question is how sincerely and actively will they be supported by the White House? And to what extent will the president “submit” to compromises? Past practice suggests that President Obama will not merely preside over allowing an agenda weighted toward Republican desiderata, but that is actually the direction he prefers.
Similarly, in foreign affairs, the subject for a separate investigation, President Obama’s policy has largely been rhetoric for peace and stability while the facts it supports on the ground undermine his professed goals.