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Obama adds politics to women's forum

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 1:32 PM EDT, Fri April 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama warns that Republican policies will reverse progress on women's issues
  • "They are issues that impact all of us," Obama tells a White House forum
  • Polls indicate an electoral gender gap, with Obama leading GOP rivals among women voters
  • The fight for progress must continue, Obama says

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Friday added a political element to an annual White House forum on women's issues by saying Republican policies would reverse progress that his administration has made.

Citing steps from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 -- the first bill he signed into law -- to expanded government loans for small businesses run by women to increased Pell grants for female college students, Obama said the November election represented a choice in future direction.

"When it comes to our efforts on behalf of women and girls, I'm proud of the accomplishments that we can point to," Obama told the third White House Forum on Women and the Economy.

"Yes, we've got a lot more to do, but there's no doubt we've made progress," he continued. "The policies we've put in place over the past three years have started to take hold. And what we can't do now is go back to the policies that got us into so many of the problems that we've been dealing with in the first place. That's what's at stake."

For example, Obama said, repealing the 2010 health care reform law -- as advocated by his likely Republican challenger in November, Mitt Romney -- would remove 1 million young women from their parents' health care coverage.

Cutting all government funding for Planned Parenthood -- another Republican objective, because of the group's abortion and contraception services -- would prevent women from getting preventive care such as mammograms provided by the organization, Obama said.

Instead, the focus should be to ensure that women have equal opportunities to participate and succeed in the workforce and society, he said.

"That's what we mean when we say that these issues are more than just a matter of policy," Obama said. "And when we talk about these issues that primarily impact women, we've got to realize they are not just women's issues; they are family issues, they are economic issues, they are growth issues, they are issues about American competitiveness. They are issues that impact all of us."

The conference attended by Cabinet members, women's leaders and others occurred as Obama's re-election bid kicked into high gear, with Romney marching toward the Republican nomination and the two exchanging increasingly hostile attacks this week.

Recent polls show Obama holding a solid leader over Romney among female voters in likely battleground states. While too early to be considered definitive, the polling indicates that a conservative shift by Romney in the primary campaign is costing him support among independent women voters.

On Sunday, a USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 possible battleground states in November indicated that Obama held a 51%-42% lead over Romney overall. Among women, Obama's lead was 54%-36%.

In addition, a CNN/ORC International survey released last week indicated Obama leading Romney nationwide among registered voters by 11 points, 54%-43%, up from a five-point advantage in February. Among women, the president's lead was 60%-37%.

Controversies in recent months over exempting birth control from health care coverage, spiced by conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's labeling an advocate of contraception coverage a "slut," raised the profile of women's issues in the political spotlight.

Conservatives including presidential hopeful Rick Santorum criticized the Obama administration for requiring religious institutions to provide contraception coverage in health care plans of employees at affiliated workplaces such as hospitals.

The critics framed the issue as one of religious liberty, while Democrats responded that critics were attacking women's rights involving heath care choices.

Romney added to the debate by saying he wanted to "get rid" of Planned Parenthood, a comment that referred to its government funding but was seized on by Democrats as a full-fledged assault against the organization.

"The so-called war on women has resonance, and the Democrats appear to be winning the spin war," CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley said. "Their accusation that Republicans are declaring a war on women has clearly seeped into the political groundwater and has hurt Romney."

The former Massachusetts governor responded to the poll results Sunday by noting that "we have work to do to make sure we take our message to the women of America, so they understand how we're going to get good jobs and we're going to have a bright economic future for them and for their kids, and make sure that these distortions that the Democrats throw in are clarified and the truth is heard."

As a first step, Romney and Santorum both expressed the same position as Obama when asked Thursday about whether women should be able to join the all-male Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters tournament. Their answer was yes, though it was up to the private club to decide, which was how White House press secretary Jay Carney had earlier explained Obama's stance.

Romney's campaign and other top Republicans say the gender gap in current polling will disappear once the divisive GOP primary battle ends. However, history shows that women have tended to vote more for Democrats over the past three decades.

"Pollsters first noticed the gender gap in the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, and it has been a constant in American politics since then," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "In presidential elections, the percent of women voting for the Democrat has usually been seven to nine points higher than the percent of men voting for the Democrat. In 2008, for example, 49% of men voted for Barack Obama, compared to 56% of women."

Obama has made women's issues a high-profile theme of his administration, starting with the creation of the White House Council on Women and Girls that hosted Friday's forum. He told the gathering that the influential role of women in his life, including a mother who nurtured and pushed him to succeed as well as his wife and two daughters, gave him a personal prism on women's issues.

"There's been a lot of talk about women and women's issues lately, as there should be," Obama said, calling some of the analysis about women voters "oversimplified."

"Women are not some monolithic bloc," Obama said to applause. "Women are not an interest group. You shouldn't be treated that way."

At the same time, he cited issues of particular concern to women, such as Republican efforts to change the Violence Against Women Act, which originally passed with bipartisan support in 1994 and now is up for reauthorization by Congress.

"That is not something we should still be arguing about," Obama said to cheers before making a plea for the fight to continue.

"I don't need to tell anybody here that progress is hard," the president said. "Change can come slow. Opportunity and equality don't come without a fight, and sometimes you have got to keep fighting even after you have won some victories. Things don't always move forward. Sometimes they move backward if you are not fighting for them."

CNN's Paul Steinhauser and Becky Brittain contributed to this report.

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