WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, leading in the polls among women voters, said on Friday he wants to help working women fight discrimination and juggle the demands of motherhood but stopped short of making promises on gender equality if he wins re-election.
At a White House event on women and the economy, Obama noted “there has been a lot of talk about women and women’s issues lately,” a nod to the emergence of contraceptive rights, working women and all-male establishments as heated issues in his race for re-election in November.
“But I do think that the conversation has been oversimplified,” Obama said. “Women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group. You shouldn’t be treated that way.”
A USA Today/Gallup poll released this week showed Obama with a strong edge over Republican Mitt Romney, his most likely rival for the White House, among women voters in electoral battleground states including New York, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama won 56 percent of women’s votes in 2008, giving him the edge he needed to win the election over Republican contender John McCain.
His fellow Democrats have accused Republicans of waging a “war on women,” with proposed cuts to healthcare and the birth control group Planned Parenthood. The White House, meanwhile, has sought to cement Obama’s support for women with moves such as a policy requiring employers to give women free birth control.
Obama, who was raised by a single mother, said that for him women’s issues were not a passing concern.
“Women are over half this country and its workforce, not to mention 80 percent of my household if you count my mother-in-law,” the father of two girls told the group. “Every decision I make is about making sure they, and all our daughters, and our sons, grow up in a country that gives them the chance to be anything they set their minds to.”
The president said he was pushing for legislation to equip working women with more tools to fight pay discrimination, given that women in the United States still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man does for the same work, despite equal-pay legislation he signed in 2009.
“When more women are bringing home the bacon, but bringing home less of it than men who are doing the same work, that weakens families, it weakens communities, it’s tough on our kids, it weakens our entire economy,” he said.
White House officials said they were focused on encouraging companies to give women more flexible working hours, including telecommuting options, and other small steps to help mothers care for their children while advancing their careers.
More ambitious plans, including increasing the length of maternity and paternity leave in the United States, which is a fraction of that afforded to parents in Europe, Canada and other advanced economies, is not on the immediate agenda.
“Extending parental leave is really something that requires Congress to act,” a senior administration official said, saying gridlock on Capitol Hill and a fractious relationship between Republicans and the White House made such an agreement unlikely.
Obama has yet to outline much of his agenda for a second term. As the campaign has gained momentum, he has focused on blaming Republicans in an unpopular Congress for blocking key initiatives and warned voters that Republicans would hurt the middle class and repeal health and retirement programs.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president supported women’s admission to the all-male Augusta golf club, which is currently under pressure to allow in the female chief executive of IBM. Romney then said he also thought women should be allowed in.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara