WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday showered attention on helping women yet warned in the same motion that they should not be reduced to a uniform political bloc, declaring they are not an interest group and "shouldn't be treated that way."
"When we talk about these issues that primarly impact women, we've got to realize that they are not just women's issues," he said at a White House forum on women and the economy. "They are family issues. They are growth issues. They are issues about American competiveness. They are issues that impact all of us."
Obama's comments came as women's concerns, and the role women will play in choosing the next president, have taken on intensifying importance. Some Democrats have accused Republicans of waging a "war on women" and have turned national controversies over women's rights into a vehicle for raising campaign cash.
The president has not used that phrase. He appealed for a debate that respected the role and needs of women as a driving economic force.
"There's been a lot of talk about women and women's issues lately, as there should be," Obama said. "But I do think that the conversation has been oversimplified. Women are not some monolithic bloc."
Still, after talking of his commitment to women in personal and policy terms, he offered the political context for his remarks: women and the election. Women have made up a majority of the electorate in each presidential year since 1984, and Obama is seeking to defend and expand a gender gap now working in his favor.
Without naming Republican Mitt Romney, his likely competitor in the presidential race, Obama warned of the perils of giving power to people who would seek to end coverage for preventative care such as mammograms and contraception, or slash college aid that disproportionally helps young women.
"That's what's at stake," Obama said.
In the 2008 election, exit polls showed Obama won women by 13 points while splitting men about evenly with his Republican opponent, John McCain.
This time around, in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll of voters in 12 swing states, Obama held a lead of 18 percentage points among women.
Nationwide, the gender gap appears smaller, but still yields a double-digit edge for Obama, other polling shows.
The president had plenty of applause lines for the women surrounding him, including when he pointed out that women hold less than one-fifth of the seats in Congress.
"Is it possible that Congress will get more done if there were more women in Congress?" he said to cheers. "Is that fair to say? I think it's fair to say."
The White House is promoting its efforts across the government to help girls, working women and women in their retirement, on issues ranging from matters of health coverage to salary fairness to the prevention of domestic violence. Obama's aides point to efforts since the start of his administration, not just in this election year.1 comment on this story
The forum focused on the enormous challenges that remain, such as the underrepresentation of women in fields of science and technology.
"When creativity is limited or ingenuity is discouraged," Obama said, "that hurts all of us."
Obama said he thinks of the future of his two daughters when he starts work each day and that all of his efforts to help women are personal, as a man who has been shaped by strong women in his life. He said women make up 80 percent of his household if you count his mother-in-law — "and I always count my mother-in-law."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this story.