Obama's Betting Against the Midterms on Women's Rights

Obama's pitch for equal pay Tuesday night, and the reaction from Republicans, hints at where the policy fight may be headed this year.

Back in 2012, when President Obama spoke about women in his speech at the Democratic convention, the emphasis was on the "health care choices that women should be making for themselves." But in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, it was all about economics.

"It's time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us," the president told the assembled joint session of Congress. "And that's why my plan will make quality child care more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America"Š—"Šby creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year."

The remarks drew a standing ovation from much of the audience. But up on the podium, where symbolic partisan reactions play out in real time, the contrast couldn't have been starker between Vice President Joe Biden, who leapt to his feet, and House Speaker John Boehner, who sat firmly in his chair. When asked to explain the behavior, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel suggested the speaker's response was really about proposals to raise the minimum wage.

"As a former small businessman, the Speaker knows that raising the minimum wage will cost American jobs," Steel wrote in an email, "as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has confirmed." Nevertheless, Boehner's actions translated easily into tweets about how Republicans won't stand up for equal pay"Š—"Šliterally—and liberal outlets were quick to write it up. (The video, for anyone who missed the relevant segment, is below.)

The move, while perhaps impolitic, is not out of line with the GOP's record on equal pay. In recent years, Republicans have voted four times to block the Paycheck Fairness Act, even as Democrats have pushed for equal pay as part of their women's economic agenda. The Paycheck Fairness Act would make it easier for women to sue employers over pay discrimination, and, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued by way of explaining his vote against the legislation, would "double down on job loss—all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers." Meanwhile, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill Obama signed into law, and, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he outlined new initiatives to promote paid leave, child care, and raising the minimum wage.

Of course, the president's move to approach what have traditionally been considered women's issues as economic issues isn't new. It's a strategy Democrats deployed in full force in the 2014 midterms, as when Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro Choice America, wrote that "middle-class families dependent on two incomes viscerally understand the inextricable connection between access to family planning and their economic outlook." Or when Stephanie Schriock, the president of the pro-abortion-rights women's group Emily's List announced that "the GOP's War on Women is, and has always been, an economic issue."

No sooner was the president's speech completed on Tuesday night then Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards blasted out her support of the president's gendered economic theme. "Like the President, we believe all women—no matter where they live or how much money they make—deserve a fair shot and a chance to pursue their dreams," she said in a statement. "That begins with recognizing that for women, the ability to decide whether and when to have children is key to economic success."

And from a purely electoral perspective, the push makes sense. Recent focus groups and polls have found that most women "believe that 'enforcing equal pay for equal work' is the policy that would 'help women the most.'" And that "Republicans who openly deny the legitimacy of the issue will be seen as out of touch with women's life experiences."

Yet to look at the results of the past election, you wouldn't think it a terribly successful strategy. Despite all the messaging linking women's health care and economic well-being, the most prominent victories for women in the midterms went to antiabortion Republicans, like Iowa's Joni Ernst and Utah's Mia Love. And Congress turned significantly more against abortion rights overall. An analysis from NARAL found the House lost nine members who favor abortion rights while gaining 10 antiabortion members, and the Senate lost six members who support abortion rights while gaining eight antiabortion senators. At the state level, there's even more bad news for Democrats: Republicans control 11 more legislative chambers than they did in 2014.

Obama seems to be betting that he knows better than the most recent exit polls when it comes to winning over women. And if the recent uptick in his approval ratings among women is any indication, he's right.