Who does Barack Obama listen to?
Not Republican politicians. Evidently weeks go by between his conversations with Speaker John Boehner, who determines what legislation comes to the House floor.
Not Democratic politicians. We have it on good authority that he seldom talks to Democratic members of Congress. Lyndon Johnson used to be on the phone constantly, cajoling and inveigling but also on the alert for shifts in opinion.
Speaker Tip O’Neill walked around the Capitol, asking member after member, “What do you hear?” In contrast, Obama, a former adviser told Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, “is a total introvert. He doesn’t need people.”
But there is one group of people Obama has to listen to: the people who give him large sums of money. He recently attended his 150th fundraiser. That’s more than the number attended by the last four presidents put together.
Obama has seen enough Architectural Digest-type interiors in Park Avenue triplexes and Beverly Hills mansions, and on the block in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, where every house is owned by a billionaire, to develop an expertise in Louis XV walnut commodes and Brunschwig & Fils fabrics.
He’s also had plenty of chances to absorb the advice of the kind of rich liberals who like to give money to Democratic presidents. And the evidence that he has taken some of that advice is his initiatives on three controversial issues, each of which involves serious political risk.
The first and least risky of these stands is his endorsement of same-sex marriage. Many Democratic money-givers, straight as well as gay, have strong convictions on this issue and were probably not appeased by his assurance that he was “evolving” from his opposition to it.
Obama’s reversal will likely help him rekindle the enthusiasm that pro-same-sex-marriage young voters once felt for him. And there’s some polling evidence suggesting that his new stand has changed the opinion of many previously anti-same-sex marriage black voters.
Still, his move probably turned off some older voters and puzzled others who wonder why with a sluggish economy he was spending time on an issue that he said should be handled by the states.
The second issue on which Obama seems to have been listening to his money-givers was the health insurance mandate requiring employers to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients.
Many rich liberals feel strongly that women’s “reproductive rights” (actually, the right not to reproduce) are so vital that government must ensure they have free access to contraception, even though it is widely available and inexpensive.
That’s one view. Roman Catholic bishops and leaders of Catholic institutions feel that such services are sinful and refuse to provide them. They cite the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, while the other side relies on what courts have called “emanations” and “penumbras” radiating from constitutional texts.
The political point is that, as polling suggests, most Americans don’t like government forcing people to violate their religious convictions. That’s in line with tradition in a country that exempted those with religiously based conscientious objections from military service in a war in which more than 400,000 Americans were killed.
The third issue is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil produced from tar sands in Canada to United States refineries and create thousands of jobs in the process.
Earlier this year, Susie Buell Tompkins, John Kerry’s fourth-biggest money-raiser in 2004, picketed outside an Obama fundraiser at San Francisco’s W Hotel to protest the pipeline. She wanted Obama’s State Department to block it because she thinks tar sands production hurts the environment and the planet.
Our neighbors the Canadians, who are not unconcerned about the environment themselves, disagree. The pipeline’s promoters say it would produce 20,000 American jobs and would tend to lower U.S. gas prices.
Obama came out on Tompkins’ side and blocked the pipeline.
If the same-sex marriage reversal seems somewhat risky politically and the contraception mandate considerably riskier, the Keystone pipeline decision seems downright foolish politically. Voters tend to favor it by two-to-one margins — and if they’re not aware of it, the Republicans (and maybe the pro-pipeline unions) will make sure they are.
When given a chance to draw new boundaries of his state Senate district in 2002, Obama made sure to include Chicago’s richest lakefront neighborhood. He’s been working hard to court rich liberal contributors ever since.
The question is, is he listening to anyone else?