To the surprise of few, presumed 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama announced that he plans to out-do Bush in integrating faith-based programs on the federal level. What surprised some, at least initially, was an inaccurate report from the Associated Press that said that Obama's plan would support religious organizations' ability to hire and fire based on faith. That error is significant because it represents a tipping point for Obama's faith-based initiatives. Mark Silk editor of the Spiritual Politics blog explains the issue:
You can certainly imagine situations where, for example, a relatively small church wants to hire a youth pastor but can only afford one half time, so wants to be able to make that a full-time position and so supplements it by making him head of the publicly funded after-school program. That's not allowed (unless, of course, you open the youth pastor position to people of any religious persuasion). What Bush tried to do was change longstanding rules. What Obama's proposing is to adhere to them. Zeleny and Luo have this just right in today's New York Times. The evangelical supporters of the Bush program are unhappy, as they should be.
On the other hand, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is not convinced that Obama has determined exactly how he would distinguish between organizations that discriminate in their hiring practices:
Would Catholic charities be allowed to refuse to hire gay people for federally-funded programs? Obama thinks they shouldn't be able to, but it's not clear how or whether Obama would intervene to prevent them from doing so. It's also clear that Obama wants to expand the Bush initiative and rebrand it a bit.
The New York Times jumped on the political horse race angle, pointing out in the article's very first words that Obama's actions are intended to woo the hearts and souls of those all-powerful "evangelical voters."
The NYT is quite thorough in its coverage and went above and beyond anything other traditional news outlets published Tuesday. One gets the sense that the NYT was given an early look at the speech since The Washington Post had nothing on its home page on the subject Tuesday evening (they published this story on A3 and had this blog post regarding the announcement up at about 11 a.m.) and The Chicago Tribune only had a blog item on the subject Tuesday evening. One has to wonder what the Obama campaign's strategy is if indeed they are attempting to court rather friendly and significant coverage from The Grey Lady. Are there certain "elite" evangelicals that the Obama campaign is attempting to reach?
The NYT article pushes the idea that Obama is hitting all of the right buttons in his efforts to win over evangelicals -- other than his positions on abortion and civil unions. But that's only something the NYT mentions in the second to last paragraph of a 1,300-word article (religious-based employment was mentioned in the fifth paragraph).
The inside Washington publication The Politico presented a different angle that should receive more attention. Instead of focusing on the campaign horserace, Mike Allen focuses on the nuts and bolts of Obama's plan and how Obama has not been too impressed with Bush's attempts to utilize faith-based groups to solve major domestic problems:
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) plans to slam President Bush's faith-based program as "a photo op" and a failure on Tuesday, and says he would scrap the office and create a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that would be a "critical" part of his administration.
Obama, unveiling a plan to overhaul and expand Bush's faith-based program during remarks at a community ministry in Zanesville, Ohio, said the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives -- which Bush founded during his second week in office -- "never fulfilled its promise."
"Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently underfunded," Obama says in prepared remarks. "Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests. As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed."
The major comparison being made right now in terms of efforts to court evangelical voters is between Obama and McCain. That's an important comparison since the two will be opposing each other in November. On so many levels Obama is trouncing McCain, but most observers are loathe to suggest that Obama will receive a level of support close to what Bush received.
An even more significant comparison to make, though, would be the 2008 Obama with the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush. Reporters cannot be quick enough in mentioning that Obama's support for legalized abortion and civil unions may be something of a stumbling block for a significant number of evangelicals, who as a group started to politically mobilize over the issue of abortion. In addition, if Obama is going to try to reverse Bush's practice of including organizations that discriminate in their hiring practices, how many organizations and their charities will be impacted?
Will proposals like his faith-based plans and spots on Christian radio be effective in turning evangelicals toward Obama? And if so, why?
Photo of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives building on Jackson Place in Washington, D.C., used under a Wikimedia Commons license.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been edited to reflect the fact that The Washington Post published this blog post regarding Obama's announcement around 11 a.m.