In the thick of a battle over women, the White House is seizing on the Republican Party's struggle to woo female voters by inviting scores of them to Washington to tell the administration what they want.
The White House's overture included President Obama himself, who told his female supporters today that they mean more to him than just some "monolithic" interest group; Attorney General Eric Holder, who empathized with women who are working to help victims of domestic violence; health secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who talked to women about health care; and a host of female advisers like Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz who promised that the administration has their back.
But it was Republicans who struck first in the morning, as the monthly employment report showed that 120,000 jobs were added in March, fewer than expected. Sharon Day, a cochairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tied the number to women's issues explicitly.
"The number of employed women declined last month and the number who have dropped out of the labor force increased," she said in a statement. "For far too long women have been left behind in Obama's job market. Of the 740,000 jobs lost since Obama took office, 683,000 of them were held by women. That is truly unsustainable. President Obama and his fellow Democrats love to say they stand for women, but women can no longer stand the Obama economy."
The so-called war on women has plagued Republicans since the primary spun into the orbit of Sandra Fluke, birth control and abortion, distracting from the all-important issue of the economy. As the fight has been prolonged, it has devolved into the seemingly trivial. The latest involves Democrats accusing the RNC chairman of comparing women with caterpillars; John Boehner's office not saying whether the House speaker thinks women should be allowed into the Augusta golf club; and GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, speaking about reproductive rights, telling a Chamber of Commerce crowd in Alaska that "it makes no sense to make this attack on women."
In a much-publicized event at the White House, Obama, who has already called the liberal Georgetown student harangued by Rush Limbaugh, joined the fray again. As women from around the country crowded into an auditorium to hear Obama speak, the president told them that they don't amount to some political "interest group" and that "you shouldn't be treated that way."
He then pandered to them by reminding them that he signed into law a bill that works to help women get paid as much as men do for the same jobs, and that he appointed two women to the Supreme Court. He told them that if more women were in Congress, the legislature would be more productive.
As he walked off to a standing ovation, the crowd at the officially nonpolitical event chanted "four more years!"
There was little nonpolitical about the ordeal. Even Holder, who conceded in a workgroup with a couple dozen women that he's not supposed to veer into politics as attorney general, said that "at the end of this electoral process," women would be better served by having Obama and Vice President Biden in charge to work on issues important to them.
"Women's issues are – I'm the attorney general, so I can't get political here, but, as an American, I'm a little bit shocked at some of the things I'm seeing and hearing," Holder said. Though he didn't elaborate, he might have been alluding to the positions that the GOP candidates have taken on Planned Parenthood, women in the military and contraception.
Democrats clearly see women as a bloc they can reclaim from the 2010 midterms, when female voters sided with Republicans and helped tip the balance of the House. Democratic pollsters have said that the GOP's recent focus on social issues has kicked women back over to their side, and a slew of new surveys appear to support that. A USA Today/Gallup poll, for example, gives Obama a confident 18-point lead over presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 12 key swing states.
Cristina Afaro, a communications worker for McDonald's in Chicago who came to Washington to hear Obama and learn about his outreach to women, watched at the end of the White House session today as Jarrett and Munoz spoke about legislation that would help women earn more money and about seeking an agenda for "the country" rather than for women separately.
She nodded throughout and applauded at the end, noting that many minority groups "have had unprecedented access" to the administration.
"People feel like they're being heard," she said. "It does make a difference."