I don't think they fully understood the religious liberty side and I certainly don't think they understood just how it would be received by Catholics. —Stephen Schneck, political scientist
WASHINGTON — It's not like he wasn't warned.
As President Barack Obama considered a decision on birth control that would turn into an unexpected political nightmare, he heard it from inside and outside his White House: He risked a fierce backlash if he required religious employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception in violation of their beliefs.
Over the course of months, Catholic groups and officials spoke with White House aides, sent letters and wrote opinion columns. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's then-chief of staff, Bill Daley, both Catholics, and other top administration officials spoke of the need to be aware of the consequences, given how Catholic groups would view the decision and how it would affect them.
But the president was hearing from the other side, too. Women's health advocates and their allies inside the White House were adamant about the importance of making free contraception available to all women; to them, it was a matter of health and fairness. Democratic senators and senior advisers joined in.
In the end, that's where Obama came down.
What came next evidently surprised the White House.
There were furious protests from Catholic groups, including administration allies. Republicans and even some Democrats were outraged.
The rising furor threatened to overwhelm the president's message and affect his re-election hopes. With no sign of the firestorm abating, Obama announced a hasty and embarrassing backtrack Friday.
"This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone. With today's announcement, we've done that," Obama said. "Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."
Under the approach, employees at church-affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals or charities still could get free birth control coverage, but it would come directly from their health insurer. Employers would not provide or pay for it.
This solution soothed some concerns from religious groups while keeping women's groups satisfied.
So why wasn't this approach taken in the first place?
Similar solutions had been advocated to the White House for months.
According to a senior administration official, some approaches were considered and rejected as unworkable, but what came out Friday simply hadn't occurred to administration officials weeks earlier.
Back then, administration officials perhaps didn't feel the same sense of urgency, according to the official, who said the policy process could have been stronger. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
To many, it seemed a needlessly self-inflicted wound for a president known for taking a politically cautious approach. The White House insisted Obama was attuned to the concerns of religious employers, especially since he had worked with Catholic parishes early in his career in Chicago, and that he intended to address those concerns in time.
But to some Catholics it appeared the administration failed to understand their concerns and how the decision would resonate.
"Lord knows we tried" to warn the administration, said Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.
Campbell said the administration seemed focused on the health issues involved in putting Obama's health care law in place. "Even though a bunch of us weighed in and said there was this other layer of concern, it's like above where they ordinarily focus, so it just didn't compute," Campbell said.
"I don't think they fully understood the religious liberty side and I certainly don't think they understood just how it would be received by Catholics," said Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at the Catholic University of America.
They soon would find out.
The administration announced the original policy on Jan. 20.
Within hours, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called it an affront to religious liberty and urged Catholics to tell their elected leaders to rescind it. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the conference's president, appeared in a Web video to accuse the administration of being "on the wrong side of the Constitution."
About a week later, priests read letters from bishops in churches across the nation, expressing their concerns.
Republicans soon pounced. GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich accused the president of an attack on religion. Congressional Republicans announced plans to overturn the policy.
The White House began hearing from generally supportive outsiders as well.
Commentators such as E.J. Dionne and Mark Shields jumped on Obama for displaying a tin ear to Catholic concerns.
Former Indiana congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer and other moderate Democrats spoke out. Among the organizations that mobilized was Democrats for Life of America.
"It became apparent that this was not going to be something that was just going to lose steam," said Kristen Day, the group's executive director. "The ranks were actually increasing rather than decreasing."
Former Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said he and Roemer offered the perspective of two lawmakers who had represented conservative Democratic districts.
Stupak said he wondered, "Why would you pick this fight in an election year? In any year, to tell you the truth."
"At first they were sort of cool: 'We know what we're doing, we'll get it resolved,'" Stupak said of the White House. "Toward the end, in the last week, it was more like: 'We're working on it, we've heard you. We'll get this thing behind us.'"
Several Democrats broke publicly with the president. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a recent chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the White House "made a bad decision."
Even as pressure mounted, Democrats supporting access to contraceptives pushed to make sure the White House didn't retreat.
For New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and other Democratic women in the Senate, their last opportunity to make their case came Wednesday, when the president took his motorcade to Nationals Stadium in Washington to meet with Senate Democrats.
Obama offered no hint an announcement was two days away, but under questioning he offered an assurance.
"He said to all of us that he was committed to the principle that women should have access to that contraceptive coverage," Shaheen said.
That same day, administration officials including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and the first lady's chief of staff, Tina Tchen, convened a meeting with women's groups at the White House to urge more women to speak out in support of the president's decision, a Democratic official said.
Participants discussed reframing the debate as less about the Catholic Church and more about a war on women, the official said, insisting on anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
By then it was already becoming clear that Obama would have to change course. Some 48 hours later, he stepped before the microphones in the White House briefing room to announce that he was.
Romney was silent on Massachusetts law
BOSTON — Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's original push to require church-affiliated employers to pay for birth control as an "assault on religion."
But as Massachusetts governor, Romney was largely silent about a state law that required virtually the same contraceptive coverage.
The Massachusetts law, which essentially mirrored Obama's proposal, was signed by Romney's predecessor in 2002, the year before he took office. Romney did not seek its repeal.
On Friday, Obama said workers at religious institutions could get free contraception directly from health insurers.
— Associated Press