A White House forum Friday on women and the economy offered President Obama a chance to remind women of things his administration has done for them.
As a substantive issue, women are increasingly important to the US economy, but still encounter challenges relative to men on matters ranging from access to credit to readiness for retirement.
As a political issue, women could play a pivotal role in the November presidential election, and this is a moment when President Obama and his campaign appear eager to shore up the female vote as a major base of support.
A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll hints at what's at stake politically: When asked whom they would vote for today if given a choice between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, men were about evenly split, while women broke heavily for Obama. Some 48 percent of women say they'd give him another term, while only 35 percent say they favor the Republican former governor and businessman.
Friday's White House forum offered Obama a chance to remind women of things his administration has done for them, making a not-so-veiled pitch for them to rally around his reelection bid.
"The first bill I signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter act, the fair pay act," Obama said, citing a law that gives women a longer statutory window to sue an employer for wage discrimination.
The president's top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, said that GOP budget plans would make steep cuts in Medicaid, at a time when 40 percent or more of US births occur with that program providing health-care support.
Obama acknowledged that the top election issue is one that unites the sexes: how to improve the economy and job creation. "We've got a lot more work to do," Obama said, after a jobs report showing a US unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in March. "That includes addressing challenges that are unique to women's economic security."
The Obama campaign may sense an opportunity to solidify support from female voters, after a publicized political duel over contraception in health insurance. The Obama administration drew criticism early this year for insisting that contraceptive services be included in health-insurance plans, with an exemption for churches but not for other institutions (some hospitals and universities, for instance) that may have a religious stance opposed to birth control.
The administration softened its position in response to an uproar rooted in the Roman Catholic community, but on Friday he emphasized that under his policies, more American women will have access to "contraception at no additional cost."
"We haven't gotten on the dry cleaning thing yet," Obama joked about the cost differences at such establishments. (The president has gotten on another gender issue, though, with his spokesman saying Thursday that Obama believes the Augusta National Golf Club should open its doors to women members. With the Masters golf tournament under way there this week, Mr. Romney said the same thing.)
Laugh lines and country-club opinions aside, Obama also appeared careful to guard his flank against possible accusations of political pandering. Even as he pledged to pursue a range of policies to support female Americans, he noted, "Women are not some monolithic block. Women are not an interest group. You shouldn't be treated that way."
Still, it's not clear that the administration's contraception move scored big political points with women.
Women were much more likely than men to support Obama's policy. But a majority among both sexes supported the president, according to a Fox News poll in February. And Obama's "gender gap" advantage over Republicans was about the same after the birth-control news emerged as it had been before, according to one analysis of polling data by RealClearPolitics.
Friday's event on women focused on their growing importance in the economy, the progress they've made, and where more progress may be needed.
Women now make up nearly half of the nation's workforce and more than half of new college graduates. But they remain underrepresented in positions of power, such as on corporate boards. And they typically struggle more than men on issues such as balancing work and family duties. They often accumulate lower retirement savings than men, even while living more years in retirement.
Women business founders face tougher hurdles in getting financing from traditional banks, said Karen Mills, head of the Small Business Administration. "We are three to five times more likely to give a loan to women or minorities than a conventional lender [is]," she said of the SBA's lending program.
Mr. Sperling hypothesized that one social shift, having nothing to do with Obama's policies, will propel younger generations of women forward as they vie alongside men for workplace opportunities. "I think the revolution of women in competitive sports in the last 20 years is going to change the culture," he said during a panel discussion at the forum.
In the recent recession, women tended to fare better than men when it came to unemployment. Male unemployment surged well above 10 percent, as industries like construction and car manufacturing were hit hard. Female unemployment topped out at 9 percent near the end of 2010.
Since then, men have been regaining jobs faster, so today, unemployment is only slightly higher for males (8.3 percent) than for females (8.1 percent).