Obama tries to draft the pope

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama is trying to draft the pope as his political ally, just two days after the White House’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that he has the legal power to make employers violate Catholic obligations.

Pope Francis “is shining a spotlight on areas that need to be of increasing concerns,” such as economic opportunity for young people, Obama told reporters at a Rome press conference, which was scheduled to maximize publicity over his meeting with the pope.

“He reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are [and] it also happens to be good economics and good national security policy… He’s hopefully creating an environment where those of us who care about this are able to talk it about it more effectively,” he said.

Obama tried to downplay the clash between progressives’ emphasis on sexual autonomy and centralized government, and Catholics’ focus on smaller government, childrearing families and sexual caution.

In 2012, Obama successfully picked a fight with the church over federal funding for contraception. The much-publicized dispute succeeded in boosting turnout by young women and progressives, so helping Obama win a second term.

But now Obama is hoping the pope can help him win an amnesty for at least 11 million mostly-Catholic immigrants, and also boost his “opportunity” agenda of greater government spending.

“We didn’t talk a lot about social schisms,” Obama claimed.

“In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation,” he said. “I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about a range of issues — some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with,” he said. That dismissive answer was likely intended to minimize media coverage of his federal Obamacare regulations that force Catholic employers to buy contraception and abortion-related services for their employees.

However, the Vatican’s press office suggested the pope pushed that issue to Obama. There “was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection,” said the statement.

Obama’s rules were debated by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, prompting observers to suggest that judges might strike them down as a violation of a law protecting Americans’ religious freedoms.

When asked about the pope’s sympathy for immigrants, Obama quickly used the question to promote the Senate’s immigration bill, passed last June. The pope “was very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants.. [who are] working hard, making contribution… yet they still live it the shadows, and in many cases, had been deported and separated from families,” said Obama.

Obama backs the Senate bill, which would ensure roughly 40 million foreigners get work permits during the next decade, during a period when 40 million Americans will turn 18.

The 40 million foreigners would include at least 11 million former illegal immigrants, roughly 20 million new legal immigrants and more than 10 million guest workers. Roughly 20 million Americans are now either unemployed or stuck in part-time work.

Obama’s decision to mention already-deported people is likely part of his increasing efforts to spur Latino turnout in the 2014 midterms.

So far, GOP leaders block the bill, partly because it is unpopular with swing-voters and conservatives. The bill is strongly supported by employers — including several billionaires, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — who are seeking to reduce wage costs.

In recent months, numerous reporters have praised the pope’s attention to economic issues, and his apparent reduced focus on sexual debates. One reporter at the press conference took that a step further, and asked Obama is the pope would enter in to a political alliance to aid his opportunity agenda.

“I don’t think His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figures on any issue,” Obama replied.

“His job is more elevated… we’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane and he’s dealing with higher powers.“

Follow Neil on Twitter