The short answer to that question is: probably not. In a news conference on April 29, a reporter asked President Obama this uncomfortable question:
As a candidate, you vowed that one of the very first things you wanted to do was sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which, as you know, would eliminate federal, state, and local restrictions on abortion. And at one point in the campaign, when asked about abortion and life, you said that it was above¯quote, above my pay grade. Now that you’ve been president for a hundred days, obviously your pay grade is a little higher than when you were a senator. [Laughter] Do you still hope that Congress quickly sends you the Freedom of Choice Act, so you can sign it?
To which the President made this squirming reply:
You know, the¯my view on¯on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue. I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they¯if they suggest¯and I don’t want create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there [are] no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with, and families and individual women have to wrestle with.
The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that¯that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day, and I think they are in a better position to make these decisions, ultimately, than members of Congress or¯or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy. So¯so thats¯thats been my consistent position.
The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is, I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again.
And so I’ve got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.
Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the¯the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s¯that’s where I’m going to focus.
I wish I could read more into these meager concessions than is warranted by Mr. Obamas record, but I am not particularly sanguine. True, he does back away from a campaign promise he made to Planned Parenthood in 2007 that the first thing he would do in the Oval Office would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would abolish all state restrictions on abortion and mandate that all medical students learn to perform abortions, no matter the dictates of their conscience.
One reason I set little store by this (minor) change from his campaign promise is Mr. Obamas skill at talking out of both sides of his mouth. In the April 30th issue of the Wall Street Journal , Daniel Henninger offered this telling analysis of the Presidents leadership style:
Early in the campaign, in January 2007, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about Mr. Obama’s time as president of the Harvard Law Review . It was there, the reporter noted, he first became a political sensation.
Here’s why: Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once. Also: People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words.
Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree told how Mr. Obama spoke on one contentious issue at the law school, and each side thought he was endorsing their view. Mr. Ogletree said: Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me.
The reason I have never forgotten this article is its last sentence, in which Al Gore’s former chief of staff Ron Klain, also of Harvard Law, reflects on the Obama sensation: The interesting caveat is that his is a style of leadership more effective [in] running a law review than running a country.
Once all this has been conceded, however, I still think it worthwhile asking whether the President can be converted on abortion. In fact, the only reason I am bothering to ask this question at all is because of some remarks Mr. Obama made in his campaign autobiography, The Audacity of Hope , which, unlike most efforts in this dreary genre, actually provides a window into the authors thinking. For one thing, Mr. Obama gives every evidence in this book of actually having written it himself (amazing!), whereas other examples of the type are rarely more than campaign speeches cobbled together by some hack on the campaign staff of the author.
The passages that caught my eye deal with his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004. When his expected Republican opponent had to drop out of the race because of a sex scandal that led to a messy and bitter divorce, the Republican Party put up, in desperation and almost faute de mieux , Alan Keyes to run against him. Despite having absolutely no chance of winning the election, Mr. Keyes nonetheless rattled Mr. Obamas famous sang froid , as the future president describes in this telling passage:
Christ would not vote for Barack Obama, Mr. Keyes proclaimed, because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.
Those who are already familiar with the Alan Keyes style of campaigning will relish this spot-on description from Mr. Obamas fluent pen, a passage that bears quoting in full:
This wasnt the first time that Mr. Keyes had made such pronouncements. After my original Republican opponent had been forced to withdraw in the wake of some awkward disclosures from his divorce file, the Illinois Republican Party, unable to settle on a local candidate, had decided to recruit Mr. Keyes for the task. The fact that Mr. Keyes had hailed from Maryland, had never lived in Illinois, had never won an election, and was regarded by many in the national Republican Party as insufferable didnt deter the Illinois GOP leadership. One Republican colleague of mine in the state senate provided me with a blunt explanation of their strategy: We got our own Harvard-educated conservative black guy to go up against the Harvard-educated liberal black guy. He may not win, but at least he can knock that halo off your head.
. . . There was no doubt that the man could talk. At the drop of a hat Mr. Keyes could deliver a grammatically flawless disquisition on virtually any topic. On the stump, he could wind himself up into a fiery intensity, his body rocking, his brow running with sweat, his fingers jabbing the air, his high-pitched voice trembling with emotions as he called the faithful to do battle against the forces of evil.
Unfortunately for him, neither his intellect nor his eloquence could overcome certain defects as a candidate. Unlike most politicians, for example, Mr. Keyes made no effort to conceal what he clearly considered to be his moral and intellectual superiority. With his erect bearing, almost theatrically formal manner, and a hooded gaze that made him appear perpetually bored, he came off as a cross between a Pentecostal preacher and William F. Buckley.
Moreover, that self-assuredness disabled in him the instincts for self-censorship that allow most people to navigate the world without getting into constant fistfights. Mr. Keyes said whatever popped into his mind, and with dogged logic would follow over a cliff just about any idea that came to him. Already disadvantaged by a late start, a lack of funds, and his status as a carpetbagger, he proceeded during the course of a mere three months to offend just about everybody. He labeled all homosexuals¯including Dick Cheneys daughter¯selfish hedonists, and insisted that adoption by gay couples inevitably resulted in incest. He called the Illinois press corps a tool of the anti-marriage, anti-life agenda. He accused me of taking a slaveholders position in my defense of abortion rights and called me a hard-core academic Marxist for my support of universal health care and other social programs¯and then added for good measure that because I was not the descendant of slaves I was not really African American.
Needless to say, Mr. Obamas campaign staff advised him to ignore his opponent completely. But that proved impossible because, like Abraham Lincoln in his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858 (who also initially refused to debate Lincoln), Mr. Keyes followed Mr. Obamas every campaign stop and then made use of this free publicity to badger his opponent with news-making sound-bites.
And just as Douglas finally had to take notice of Lincolns ceaseless hammering away at Douglass pro-choice platform (which said, in effect, Im personally opposed to slavery but cant impose my choice on other states, including other Northern states.), so too Mr. Obama could not help feeling stung by the same argument when applied to him. In what is surely the most important passage in The Audacity of Hope , the author describes his frustration (and guilty conscience?) in this way:
Alan Keyes was an ideal opponent; all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and start planning my swearing-in ceremony. And yet, as the campaign progressed, I found him getting under my skin in a way that few people ever have. When our paths crossed during the campaign, I often had to suppress the rather uncharitable urge to either taunt him or wring his neck. Once, when we bumped into each other at an Indian Independence Day parade, I poked him in the chest while making a point, a bit of alpha-male behavior that I hadnt engaged in since high school and which an observant news crew gamely captured; the moment was replayed in slow motion on TV that evening. In the three debates that were held before the election, I was frequently tongue-tied, irritable, and uncharacteristically tense¯a fact that the public (having by that point written Mr. Keyes off), largely missed, but one that caused no small bit of distress to some of my supporters. Why are you letting this guy give you fits? they would ask me. For them, Mr. Keyes was a kook, an extremist, his arguments not even worth entertaining.
Ah, but he did get to him, which brings me back to my original question. What emerges from this episode, so effectively told in The Audacity of Hope , is that its author really, really does not like being compared to Stephen Douglas on the issue of abortion, even if the analogy is entirely apt¯once it is granted that abortion is first and above all a civil-rights issue. And something about that civil rights argument gnaws at Mr. Obama, as he describes here:
What they [my supporters] didnt understand was that I could not help but take Mr. Keyes seriously. For he claimed to speak for my religion¯and although I might not like what came out of his mouth, I had to admit that some of his views had many adherents within the Christian church.
His argument went something like this: America was founded on the twin principles of God-given liberty and Christian faith. Successive liberal administrations had hijacked the federal government to serve a godless materialism and had thereby steadily chipped away¯through regulation, socialistic welfare programs, gun laws, compulsory attendance at public schools, and the income tax (the slave tax, as Mr. Keyes called it)¯at individual liberty and traditional values. Liberal judges had further contributed to this moral decay by perverting the First Amendment to mean the separation of church and state, and by validating all sorts of aberrant behavior¯particularly abortion and homosexuality¯that threatened to destroy the nuclear family. The answer to American renewal, then, was simple: Restore religion generally¯and Christianity in particular¯to its rightful place at the center of our public and private lives, align the law with religious precepts, and drastically restrict the power of federal government to legislate in areas prescribed neither by the Constitution nor by Gods commandments.
Now such views send most liberals into paroxysms of paranoia, and would be worth a whole string of snide columns from the likes of Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd about knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying theocrats. But Barack Obama cant take that route, at least if what he says in The Audacity of Hope can be trusted:
Alan Keyes presented the essential vision of the religious right in this country, shorn of all caveat, compromise, or apology. Within its own terms, it was entirely coherent, and provided Mr. Keyes with the certainty and fluency of an Old Testament prophet. And while I found it simple enough to dispose of his constitutional and policy arguments, his readings of Scripture put me on the defensive.
Mr. Obama says hes a Christian, Mr. Keyes would say, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.
Mr. Obama says hes a Christian, but he supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.
What could I say? That a literal reading of the Bible was folly? That Mr. Keyes, a Roman Catholic, should disregard the popes teachings? Unwilling to go there, I answered with the usual liberal response in such debates¯that we live in a pluralistic society, that I cant impose my religious views on another, that I was running to be a U.S. senator from Illinois and not the minister of Illinois. But even as I answered, I was mindful of Mr. Keyess implicit accusation¯that I remained steeped in doubt, that my faith was adulterated, that I was not a true Christian.
Even now while typing out these passages, I cannot guess what they portend for the rest of President Obamas term of office. And I say this as someone utterly immune to his flights of oratory, which always sound to me like empty windbaggery. Think, for example, of his favorite slogan during the campaign: the Fierce Urgency of Now. What on earth is that supposed to mean? (Although I do like its acronym: FUN.)
Moreover, when push comes to shove, he almost always caves in to liberal interest groups, even when one suspects he would prefer to go against them, as when he disgracefully canceled the school voucher program that allows poor students to attend private schools in the District of Columbia, even though his own two daughters attend a very pricey and tony private academy (with no howls from the liberal press, of course), and even though the D.C. public schools are universally recognized as a disaster.
Plus, the president will soon be choosing David Souter’s replacement on the Supreme Court and will probably get to choose one or two more more justices in his first term of office; and with a Senate now made impervious to Republican filibuster, he will be free to nominate just about any judicial usurper of politics he wants on his list of jurisprudential leftists.
Not exactly a vision to inspire hope in those who are praying for his conversion. But based on his campaign autobiography, I hold to at least this small¯and therefore truly audacious¯hope: When it comes to abortion, Barack Obama does not like being compared to Stephen Douglas. Maybe the President of Notre Dame could redeem himself on Commencement Day this May 17th by introducing the President of the United States to the assembled graduates as “our nations second Stephen Douglas.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago.