It will be hard for President Obama to live up to those expectations, and on one vital issue, I don't think he will really try to do so. For Catholics, the fear is that an Obama administration will make the first significant change to the status quo on abortion in years. During his campaign, Barack Obama pledged to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would undo every significant restriction placed on abortion by states in the years since Roe v. Wade. It would also make abortion a fundamental right, which could lead to lawsuits against doctors and hospitals--which in practice means primarily Catholic ones--that refuse to perform abortions.
Such concerns have motivated the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to organize a postcard campaign, urging members of Congress to vote against FOCA. There is a sense that the early days of the Obama administration will shape the direction of the country--and of Catholic participation in American political life--for the foreseeable future.
Yet I do not think that Barack Obama will sign FOCA--not because he will go back on his promise to supporters of abortion, but because he will not get the opportunity to do so. I'm speaking now from my background in political science and as editor of a political magazine. As far as I can tell, there aren't enough votes in Congress at the moment to pass FOCA, and, despite his pledge to sign it, I don't think Obama will squander his political capital early on by twisting arms on Capitol Hill on the most divisive issue in American politics.
That is not to say that Barack Obama is not committed to abortion. Indeed, his stands mark him as the most pro-abortion politician ever elected president. Despite the widespread perception that he is a warm and friendly man, his remarks about his own daughters and abortion--"if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby"--seem almost as cold as Michael Dukakis's answer in 1988 to the question about whether he would favor the death penalty if a man raped and killed his wife ("No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life").
But Obama is also a very cautious politician. Both as a state senator in Illinois and as U.S. senator, he has often avoided votes on controversial issues, even when his public stands made it clear which side he favored. I think the same will happen now. FOCA may well come up for a vote in the House and/or Senate, but the Obama administration will offer little more than lip service, and President Obama himself may not even make a public statement in support of FOCA during the debate.
Obama will take other actions that will expand the federal government's--and federal taxpayers'--complicity in abortion. For example, he will certainly overturn by executive order the "Mexico City Policy," which has banned the use of U.S. foreign-aid funds to promote or procure abortions, and he may very well choose to do so on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade later this week. And, of course, those men and women he appoints to federal judgeships and to the U.S. Supreme Court will undoubtedly not only support Roe v. Wade but the most expansive interpretation of it.
On the general question of abortion, however, I don't expect much to change. Just as the Republican administration of George W. Bush chose not to press the issue (by, for instance, urging Congress to remove laws restricting abortion from review by the federal courts), the Democratic administration of Barack Obama will largely maintain the status quo.
The difference, of course, is that those who support abortion have no reason to be dissatisfied with the status quo, while those who of us oppose it should have been upset when the Bush administration did not press the issue. Our failure to hold President Bush and his party accountable for not upholding the Republican platform on abortion meant that abortion would continue apace, ending the lives of 1.3 million children per year.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)