Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?

How you look at things.
May 20 2009 7:55 AM

The Two Faces of Barack Obama

Can a pro-choice president lead a pro-life majority?

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"The views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory," the president observed in his speech. And how. Beliefnet's Steve Waldman points to a recent Third Way survey  in which 69 percent of Americans said abortion was the "taking of a human life," but 72 percent nevertheless said it should be legal. This is a long-standing pattern, underscored by a new Gallup poll in which for "the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life." The National Right to Life Committee thinks this poll discredits the notion that the country favors abortion rights. Conversely, NARAL Pro-Choice America thinks the poll numbers are fishy because they "do not square with the voting patterns in the last two elections cycles." But what if, once again, both are true? What if we're more pro-life morally than legally? Look at Gallup's numbers. They show a seven-point increase in the percentage of people calling themselves "pro-life" but only a three-point increase in the percentage who think abortion should be mostly or fully illegal.

I don't find the opposing data hard to square at all.  NARAL is right: Voters last year elected a pro-choice president and added eight and 44 seats, respectively, to pro-choice ranks in the U.S. Senate and House. That's why you'd expect the "pro-life" number to go up in this year's Gallup poll. People feel more confident that abortion will stay legal, and therefore they're more willing to focus on their moral discomfort with it. The ups and down of abortion polling have always followed this reactive dynamic. Look again at Gallup's data. The percentage of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" trended up during the Clinton administration and then down during the Bush administration, right up until Democrats captured Congress in 2006.

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Smart pro-lifers understand the multidimensionality of public opinion. That's why, in his introduction of Obama, Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, urged fellow pro-lifers to "appeal to ethical principles that might be persuasive to others." Obama understands it, too: He challenged fellow pro-choicers to "open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do." Understanding other perspectives isn't just a courtesy. It's a strategy.

To some pro-lifers, this is just an Obama spin game. His "mellifluous words," they argue, are meaningless cover for a hard-core record of funding abortion and embryo destruction. Even the concession he cited in his address as an example of outreach to pro-lifers was insubstantial. "I didn't change my underlying position," he noted, "but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site." What kind of compromise is that?

Still, Obama's acknowledgment of the issue's complexity is important for two reasons. First, he's dropping the pretense of a conclusive answer. "I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away," he conceded. "Each side will continue to make its case to the public." Accepting multidimensionality means accepting that one dimension can't foreclose others. Preserving abortion's legality will never make it moral or, for that reason, politically safe.

Second, as I learned from writing my book, even strategic or symbolic dialogue can bring unforeseen consequences. The seducer can be seduced. When you listen, you hear things. You entertain unfamiliar ideas. You might even change your mind. As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick points out, Obama has already adjusted his positions on military tribunals, indefinite detention, rendition, abuse photos, and state secrets. Is he weak or open-minded? That depends on your perspective. Either way, the guy clearly listens.

The knowledge that God's "wisdom is greater than our own … should humble us," Obama told the graduates. "It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate." That kind of openness is scary. It threatens the primacy of the perspective from which you entered the debate. But maybe that's the point.

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