There seem to be two problems here. First, I think Obama still somehow can’t believe, won’t believe, that political actors will deal with him in bad faith. He was gobsmacked right after he took office by the GOP’s nearly united opposition to his stimulus bill. With regard to the debt ceiling, he famously said that he believed that once Boehner and the Republicans shared governing duties, they’d act in the responsible way. It seemed he’d learned something from that, and he probably did, at least with regard to Republicans on the Hill. But maybe he thought this was somehow different—that he’d have a little bit of good will in the bank from the Catholic bishops because of the Plan B decision. Sure.
Second, there’s just basic political fumbling that is awfully hard to understand. It’s particularly mystifying that the administration didn’t nail down the support of Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association. She’s been an administration ally on health care. She’s fine with today’s language. Even the Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a semi-supportive statement Friday afternoon. (Though later in the day, they sounded much more critical.) But it’s malpractice that it had to happen this way, and you have to wonder why there wasn’t more legwork here. In his excellent piece in the new Atlantic, James Fallows gets to two possible explanations. Obama is aloof and solitary; he just doesn’t enjoy having to talk to a lot of people. Number two, he doesn’t demand enough of his staff. We don’t know a lot of the backstory here, but it wouldn’t exactly be shocking to find that both of these factors were present.