WASHINGTON - There were no glaring lights or TV cameras when President Barack Obama signed an executive order yesterday affirming the continuing ban on federal funding for abortion.
No East Room speeches. Not even a photo-op handshake.
But the 876-word, two-page document may be among the most important of his presidency. The carefully negotiated document assured passage of his health care legislation by gaining a handful of crucial anti-abortion votes without shedding abortion rights ones.
"The executive order found a sweet spot, which I'm surprised existed," said William Galston, of the Brookings Institution. "Something that didn't send the base of the party into a tizzy, but seems to have satisfied a very important minority within the party. It was the model of win-win pragmatism."
A strict reading of the order suggests that it does little more than restate the existing prohibition on abortion funding, known as the Hyde amendment, and make sure that government officials "are aware of their responsibilities, new and old."
But that didn't stop abortion rights activists from condemning Obama for agreeing to it, or keep anti-abortion groups from asserting that it falls short.
The National Organization for Women declared Sunday night that Obama's commitment to abortion rights is "shaky, at best," and said his willingness to sign the order demonstrated that "it is acceptable to negotiate health care on the backs of women."
For the activist groups, overheated rhetoric is part of the fundraising game. A threat to their core agenda can help them raise enormous amounts of money from their members and supporters. NOW declared Monday that it would launch an effort to repeal the Hyde amendment, the more than three-decade-old annual budgetary provision that Obama affirmed.
As Galston notes, the president's decision to sign the order did not drive a single abortion rights lawmaker to vote against it, suggesting that the substance of the letter was less important than its symbolic value.
But for the president the order reflects a willingness to ask some of his most devoted constituents - women, gays, unions and African-Americans - to swallow a few toads while he battles on behalf of his broader agenda.