President Obama’s Forum on Women and the Economy today was not just his Good Friday opportunity to tout a mixed-bag job report but a platform from which to release a dossier on women’s policy that essentially amounted to a 70-page campaign flier.
“There’s been a lot of talk about women and women’s issues lately, as there should be,” he said. “But I do think that the conversation has been oversimplified. Women are not some monolithic bloc.”
But the event, hosted by senior adviser and chairwoman of the White House Council on Women and Girls Valerie Jarrett, and accompanying materials were a crystal-clear effort to seize upon that bloc in light of the stumbles that the presumptive GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is having with women voters.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released this week showed Obama with the support of more than six in 10 women under 50 while Romney’s support in that group has dropped by 14 points, to 30 percent, since mid-February.
The women on stage behind the president included Karma Cottman, the executive director of the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Victoria Rockwell, the president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and two women involved in workplace discrimination cases. But the real backdrop was this morning’s Labor Department report that showed unemployment dropping to 8.2 percent even as the number of those not participating in the workforce hit an all-time high.
“Right now, no issue is more important than restoring economic security for all our families in the wake of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said. “…And that includes addressing challenges that are unique to women’s economic security — challenges that have been around since long before the recession hit.”
The unemployment rates of men and women have evened out this year, though men initially had a tougher time in the recession. In June 2009 the jobless rate for men was 9.9 percent, with women at 7.6 percent. In January 2012, 7.7 percent of men were unemployed, and the same for women.
Today’s report showed that in March the unemployment rate for women was 7.4 percent and for men it was 7.6 percent.
“Women’s unemployment rate finally has come down since the start of the recovery, but progress remains slow,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center. “The modest job gains reported today underscore the importance of continued investment in programs that create jobs and help families get back on their feet.” She proceeded to slam House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan as one that would “take us backwards.”
The event coincided with the release of a White House report titled Keeping America’s Women Moving Forward, 70 pages of 2012 campaigning wrapped in administration policyspeak. It broke down how many women received Pell grants, thanks to the president; how much compensation has been obtained for victims of gender-based wage discrimination since January 2010, thanks to his administration; how many women on Medicare got improved prescription drug coverage, etc.
“The Payroll tax cut provided an average of $1,000 of tax relief for nearly 75 million women,” states the report. “…President Obama has committed to protecting Social Security for an estimated 30 million women beneficiaries.”
The 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first bill Obama signed into law, is highlighted in the report. It has been mentioned by Barack and Michelle Obama in nearly every campaign speech so far this season.
“Closing this pay gap — ending pay discrimination — is about far more than simple fairness,” Obama said today. “When more women are bringing home the bacon, but bringing home less of it than men who are doing the same work, that weakens families, it weakens communities, it’s tough on our kids, it weakens our entire economy.”
Early into the report, the administration also highlights this year’s controversial contraception mandate.
“Women typically use contraception for 30 years of their lives, and the average cost of contraception is $30 to $50 per month,” it states. “Under the Affordable Care Act’s preventive services coverage provision, insurance companies are now required to cover contraception at no extra cost. In addition, President Obama has consistently supported and defended Title X family planning clinics, proposing funding increases for these clinics in each year of his Administration. For many women, a family planning clinic is their entry point into the health care system and is their primary source of care. This is especially true for low-income women, women who are uninsured, and for Hispanic and African American women. These services are highly cost-effective, saving $4 for every $1 spent. And in April 2011, President Obama refused to allow language barring Title X funding to Planned Parenthood to be included in the federal budget.”
In his address today, Obama gave a short nod to this. “And later this year, women will receive new access to recommended preventive care like domestic violence screening and contraception at no additional cost,” he said.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and Attorney General Eric Holder participated in the forum.
The White House was questioned Thursday on the campaign tenor of the event; White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended it as not “inherently political” but motivated by a desire to grow the economy.
“So what day are you having a men’s conference on the economy?” Ed Henry of Fox News asked.
“Well, stay tuned,” Carney responded. “Ed, that’s kind of a silly question.”
“So why are we focusing on small businesses with a Small Business Job Creation Act? Are we discriminating against big businesses?” Carney continued. “We’re focusing on women because there are a number of issues that are important with regards to women in the economy, women’s safety, women in education, that are very distinct and important, and we’re proud to host the conference.”
He sounded the standard campaign notes that backed up the assertion that today’s event was geared toward nabbing and holding onto women voters — a conference that was less about discussing women’s path forward in general and more about replaying the president’s gender-associated policy initiatives.
“This administration has engaged in a number of policy approaches designed to address women in the economy, including the very first bill that the president signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Act — Fair Pay Act — and there are a variety of initiatives that this administration has put forward that deal with issues of concern to women in particular,” Carney said. “There is the Violence Against Women Act. We have an office overseen by the Vice President’s office that deals with that legislation. So these are important policy initiatives; that’s why we’re having the conference.”
At the forum, Obama said he was motivated by the fact that “women are over half this country and its workforce — not to mention 80 percent of my household, if you count my mother-in-law.”
“Just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women,” Obama said. “Fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress are occupied by women. Is it possible that Congress would get more done if there were more women in Congress?”