Political Diagnosis: Obama Draws Attention to Women's Inequality, Domestic and Global; New FDA Commissioner Nominated; Omnibus Bill Funds Reproductive Health Initiatives; The Return to a Scientific, Reality-Based Presidency

By Christine Cupaiuolo — March 15, 2009

Obama’s Feminist Mystique: What a week for women in the new adminstration. President Obama named Melanie Verveer, chair and CEO of the Vital Voices Global Partnership for emerging women leaders, to a newly created State Department position: special ambassador for global women’s issues. Veveer was once Hillary Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

Then on Wednesday Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Council on Women and Girls. (Read about the event through the eyes of basketball star Lisa Leslie.) Lynn Sweet has photos and a full list of the attendees.

The council will be led by longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who talked with NPR’s Linda Wertheimer about what the group will focus on. Director of Public Liaison Tina Tchen will oversee day-to-day operations.

Its mission, according to the White House memo, is to “provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families.”

In his remarks, Obama emphasized that women are not the only ones hurt by gender inequality:

“These issues are not just women’s issues. When women make less than men for the same work, it hurts families who find themselves with less income, and have to work harder just to get by. When a job doesn’t offer family leave, that also hurts men who want to help care for a new baby or an ailing parent. When there’s no affordable child care, that hurts children who wind up in second-rate care, or spending afternoons alone in front of the television set. And when any of our citizens cannot fulfill their potential because of factors that have nothing to do with their talent, their character, their work ethic, that says something about the state of our democracy.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof summed up the powerful message that the White House is sending.

“For decades, the ‘serious’ foreign policy issues were the likes of non-proliferation or trade rules, but a new agenda is emerging and the treatment of women around the world is high on it,” writes Kristof.

“But this isn’t just a justice issue. It’s also a matter of economic development. One of the things we’ve learned over the last 15 years is that you can’t fight poverty effectively unless you educate, emancipate and empower women, and bring them into the formal economy. So, with these new positions, onward!”

New FDA Commissioner Named: Filling a key vacancy, Obama today said in his weekly radio address that he would nominate Margaret A. Hamburg, a physician and former New York City health commissioner, to lead the Food and Drug Administration. Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore’s health commissioner, will serve as Hamburg’s chief deputy.

The address, which focused on food safety, confirmed Hamburg’s nomination, which was made public earlier this week.

“The pair, both outsiders, would take on an agency in crisis,” wrote Rob Stein and Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post. “Shaken by a series of alarming failures, the FDA desperately needs an infusion of strong leadership, money, technology and personnel — and perhaps a major restructuring, say former officials, members of Congress, watchdog groups and various government reports.”

The dismal news continues:

The agency has been lambasted on Capitol Hill for a series of food-borne illnesses, the most recent of which is an ongoing salmonella illness outbreak that has sickened 700 people and killed nine. It has been slammed by its own scientists for approving medical devices without proper vetting. And it has been unable to ensure the safety of imported goods pouring into the United States from around the world, including food, drugs and raw materials.

Other than that, I’m sure things are just swell.

Plus: Over at the Wall Street Journal, Alicia Mundy has a good story about how political lobbying drove the FDA approval process of Menaflex, a medical device designed to treat a common knee injury. The story includes a paper trail of memos.

And here’s an interesting fact about Hamburg’s mother, Beatrix; She was the first African American woman to attend Vassar College and to earn a degree from the Yale University School of Medicine.

Spending Bill Passes; Includes Funding for Reproductive Health: Congress finally passed the 2009 omnibus spending bill this week. Michele Goldberg, writing at RH Reality Check, discusses the $50 million the bill includes for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which was de-funded under the Bush administration.

“Now that Democrats are running things, we’re seeing a return to reality-based policymaking on women’s health,” she writes, but warns that conservatives will continue to find ways to attack the UNFPA.

Jodi Jacobson has more analysis of the spending bill and its funding for domestic and international reproductive health programs.

Science Trumps Ideology: Last week we previewed Obama’s decision to overturn the Bush administration’s restrictions on stem cell research. But Obama went a step further on Monday, outlining how his administration would continue to  value the expertise of science advisers. From The New York Times:

The document orders Mr. Obama’s top science adviser to help draft guidelines that will apply to every federal agency. Agencies will be expected to pick science advisers based on expertise, not political ideology, the memorandum said, and will offer whistle-blower protections to employees who expose the misuse or suppression of scientific information.

The idea, the president said in remarks before an audience of lawmakers, scientists, patients advocates and patients in the East Room, is to ensure that “we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology”: a line that drew more applause than any other. Irv Weissman, who directs an institute at Stanford University devoted to studying stem cells, called the declaration “of even greater importance” than the stem cell announcement itself.

After noting that “Congressional Democrats and scientists themselves issued report after report asserting that the White House had distorted or suppressed scientific information,” the Times turned to Bush political strategist Karl Rove and counselor Ed Gillespie to defend their boss and his supposedly rigorous application of science — which makes for a very subjective ending.

Take Action

*Email President Obama at president@whitehouse.gov or call the White House at 202-456-1111 and thank the president for his commitment to promoting sound science based on fact not ideology and for not letting religion be used as a barrier to access safe and effective drugs.

*As Rachel reported, the first step in rescinding the Bush administration’s so-called concscience-provide rule is the 30-day public comment period. Here are some sample comments for your review and inclusion. (National Partnership for Women and Families)

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