The pope giveth, and President Obama taketh advantage.
The White House announced Tuesday that Mr. Obama will have his first meeting with Pope Francis during a trip to Europe, even as his aides and Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were seizing on the pontiff’s recent comments on economics and income inequality for their own political gain.
In announcing the March 27 Vatican meeting, the White House specifically noted that the two men will discuss “growing inequality.” The pope, a native of Argentina, has talked a great deal about inequality, and Mr. Obama recently highlighted the topic in a major economic speech.
Since Francis denounced “trickle-down economics” and income inequality in November, Mr. Obama and top congressional Democrats have used those words as ammunition in their push for a minimum-wage hike, an unconditional extension of long-term jobless aid and other goals that Republicans have resisted.
For a White House under fire from many Catholic leaders, partly because of Obamacare’s mandates on birth control insurance and the administration’s staunchly pro-choice position on abortion, linking with the charismatic pope on economic issues offers tangible political benefits in the short run, said Joseph Prud’homme, a political science professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics and Culture at Maryland’s Washington College.
“This is a common move on the part of this president,” he said. “He has shown himself very keen to gain short-term political benefits. I think it can be of short-term benefit for Democrats to say some of their policy objectives are consistent with Catholic social justice.”
Mr. Obama “wants to speak to Hispanic Catholics and politically independent Catholics by broadcasting to those two groups that he is not hostile to the Catholic Church. I think this is clearly a political machination on the part of the president,” Mr. Prud’homme said.
Having the pope on their side gives Democrats even greater incentive to use income inequality and related issues as central planks of their congressional campaigns, and to again portray Republicans as agents of Wall Street who fundamentally are OK with the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor.
Democrats employed that strategy against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, painting him as a wealthy businessman with little empathy for the middle class and the poor.
Focus on economics
Although Francis’ positions on economics and free markets aren’t all that different from those of his predecessors, he has thrust the issue into the spotlight so quickly and with such conviction that some political pundits have speculated that, at his core, this pontiff politically could be identified as a Democrat.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system,” the pope wrote in November. “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
Liberal Catholics also have seized on several remarks by the pontiff that seem to back away from the church’s focus on divisive social issues.
As they pushed to raise the nation’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and for other government programs designed to aid the poor and shrink the historic gap between the rich and the poor, Democrats cast the pope as their ally.
“The statement [Francis] recently made about income inequality was not just a message to America, but a message to the world, yet those of us in America should pay heed,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats’ No. 2 man in the Senate, said last month. “It challenges all of us, and particularly challenges those of us who have been blessed with an opportunity to serve in public life.”
Paul Begala, a noted Democratic strategist and adviser to President Clinton, told The Associated Press, “It becomes very difficult for conservatives to attack President Obama for being divisive, when the world’s greatest figure for unity is saying pretty much the same thing.”
Other Democrats, including the president himself and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have lauded Francis’ comments, even though the pontiff stopped short of advocating specific policies or programs to help the poor or other disadvantaged groups.
Reformer, but still a true Catholic
Mr. Obama was last at the Vatican in July 2009 for a meeting with the more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down last year.
Although the short-term benefits of the March meeting are clear, Mr. Prud’homme said, the White House should exercise caution before aligning itself too closely with Francis.
He has been cast as a reformer, but this pontiff still is a true Catholic who is at the opposite end of the spectrum on central Democratic issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Lending too much credence to Francis’ views on economics and income inequality ultimately could highlight just how far apart the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party are on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and the birth control mandate, Mr. Prud’homme said.
The president “wants short-term political cover, but the more he is associated with the papacy, the more he opens himself up in the long run,” he said. “Long-term, the Democrats are potentially going to put themselves in a weaker position politically the more they associate themselves with this papacy.”
Although Francis’ comments on income inequality may cause some Catholics to think more deeply about the issue, he said, most look to the pontiff for spiritual guidance, not economic policy.
“The more Catholics understand their faith, the more they appreciate that the pope is not an economist,” Mr. Prud’homme said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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