On Jan. 20, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States and become the first African-American to occupy the office. Great hopes and great anxieties converge upon this profoundly historic occasion.
Obama's inaugural address -- drafted by a 27-year-old Holy Cross College graduate named Jon Favreau -- is expected to stick to broad themes expressed in his trademark rhetoric. Specifics will come later, in the State of the Union and budget messages.
But after months of uncertainty, Obama's relationship with moral conservatives may nevertheless be indelibly defined in the earliest days of his presidency. Barring a miracle, it seems unlikely to be a harmonious one.
Two days after the inauguration, pro-lifers will stream through downtown Washington for the annual March for Life, marking the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. For many, the question of the day won't be whether, but how, they and the new administration will lock horns.
And the next weekend, U.S. Catholics at Mass across the country will be asked to sign postcards to their senators and representatives urging them to reject pro-abortion legislation supported by Obama. By then, the president may have taken the first steps to carrying out his stated pro-choice views.
Reversal on life issues
Obama comes to office on a near-tidal wave of expectations and unanswered questions. Since the Democratic primaries, when he ran as a candidate of the left, he has worried many liberal Democrats by shifting right.
Steps to address the economic crisis will undoubtedly be first on Obama's agenda. Also high up on the list are health care, the environment and energy. He is expected to pursue interventionist policies on all three. But international concerns like the war in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear ambitions and new tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors won't wait quietly until the new president gets around to them.
Given the seriousness of such problems, even the incoming president's critics wish him success. For moral conservatives, however, the good wishes don't extend to social issues.
During the campaign, Catholics in particular argued among themselves about whether Obama would push abortion as president. Now they are about to find out.
Media reports attributed to the Obama transition team say that early on he will reverse Bush administration policies that bar funding for groups promoting abortion overseas and restrict government subsidies for embryonic stem-cell research to existing cell lines. He also is expected to resume U.S. funding of the United Nations population program.
Soon, too, the administration will say how it intends to go about undoing a Bush regulation, finalized in December, requiring health facilities that get federal money to allow doctors and other medical personnel to opt out of abortions and other procedures they object to in conscience.
Looming a little farther down the line is the question of what Obama will do about the much-publicized Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). Declaring abortion a "fundamental right," FOCA would provide a statutory basis for overturning virtually all state and federal laws that restrict the procedure, including bans on partial-birth abortion. Catholic hospitals and medical personnel opposed to abortion would presumably come under pressure to fall in line.
Obama co-sponsored the bill as a senator and in July 2007 promised Planned Parenthood he would sign it into law as president if he got the chance. FOCA was part of a wish list submitted by some 50 pro-abortion groups to his transition team.
Some Obama supporters, Catholics among them, pooh-pooh the bill's chances. But whether it does or doesn't become law largely depends on whether Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders decide to push for it. And that depends largely on how strongly it's opposed.
The American bishops are gearing up to fight FOCA along with others in the pro-life community. The first stage will be a nationwide effort the weekend after the inauguration featuring parish distribution of millions of postcards to Congress urging the bill's rejection. The bishops sponsored a similar anti-FOCA drive early in the Clinton administration, and the legislation died.
Also certain to arise soon is the issue of federal judgeship nominations. Obama's picks for these key positions are expected to be pro-choice, as are his choices for the Supreme Court, when and if seats become open there.
Already, his appointments during the transition have had a decidedly abortion-friendly coloration.
Along with Vice President Joseph Biden, who is pro-choice and Catholic, the administration will include several pro-choice Catholic Cabinet members: Secretary of Health and Human Services Thomas Daschle, who is Obama's designated point man on health care, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano also are pro-choice, as is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Melody Barnes, a former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who will head the White House Domestic Policy Council, is a former board member of Planned Parenthood and the pro-abortion political action group Emily's List.
The president's communication director is Ellen Moran, former executive director of Emily's List.
During the presidential election, Obama backed anti-poverty programs and assistance to pregnant women to reduce the number of abortions. At the same time, he promised pro-abortion groups he would not budge on keeping abortion legal and readily available.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment are co-sponsoring the postcard-writing campaign to help Catholics let their representatives and senators know they oppose passage of the Freedom of Choice Act. To learn more, visit nchla.org.
To read more about the bishops' opposition to FOCA, visit www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/FOCA.
Americans United For Life is also encouraging pro-lifers to sign a petition against FOCA at www.fightfoca.com.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.