WASHINGTON — In nearly four months in office, President Obama has pursued a careful two-pronged strategy on abortion, enacting policies that secure a woman’s right to the procedure while vowing to move beyond the culture wars that have divided the nation on the issue for more than three decades.
Now, Mr. Obama is suddenly in the thick of the battle he had hoped to transcend, and his delicate balancing act is being put to the test.
The confluence of two events — his commencement speech on Sunday at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, and his forthcoming choice of a candidate to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring from the Supreme Court — threaten to upend Mr. Obama’s effort to “tamp down some of the anger” over abortion, as he said in a news conference last month, and to distract from his other domestic priorities, like health care.
The invitation from Notre Dame, a Roman Catholic institution, has riled opponents of abortion, who object to giving such a platform to a supporter of abortion rights. The local bishop has vowed to boycott the ceremony. Some graduating seniors are planning to protest it. Conservatives, frustrated by what they regard as Mr. Obama’s skillful efforts to paint himself as a moderate, are all over the airwaves denouncing him as “the most radical, pro-abortion of any American president,” as Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, said on Fox News.
The White House must now decide whether to engage in the debate and, if so, how deeply. Mr. Obama’s communications adviser, Anita Dunn, said in an interview that the president was likely to “make reference to the controversy” in his speech on Sunday. “You can’t ignore it,” Ms. Dunn said, “but at the same time, you can’t allow it to become the focus of a day that’s actually supposed to be about the graduates.”
While the address has galvanized abortion opponents, the Supreme Court opening has galvanized backers of abortion rights. Both sides expect Mr. Obama to pick a candidate who would uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. But interest groups are taking no chances. “Take Action: Protect a Woman’s Right to Choose!” declared the Center for Reproductive Rights in an e-mail message to supporters on Wednesday.
Mr. Obama frames his position on abortion as a nuanced one — he calls it a “a moral and ethical issue” best left to women and doctors — and he envisions himself forging consensus around causes like reducing unintended pregnancies and promoting adoption. As he said in a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood, “Culture wars are so ’90s.”
As president, Mr. Obama, who during the campaign answered a question about when human life begins by saying it was “above my pay grade,” has tried to straddle the abortion divide. He has done so partly by reaching out to religious conservatives, partly by avoiding the most contentious legislative battles and partly by reversing the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, a faithful ally of abortion opponents, in piecemeal fashion — all while the nation has been consumed by the economic crisis.
He has named abortion rights advocates to top jobs; Dawn Johnsen, a former legal director of Naral Pro-Choice America, is his pick to run the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He has repealed the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibited tax dollars from going to organizations that provide abortions overseas; lifted Mr. Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research; stripped financing for abstinence-only sex education; and is seeking to undo a last-minute Bush regulation giving broad protections to health providers who refuse to take part in abortions.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she told allies that their movement was emerging from “eight years in the wilderness.”
But even as Mr. Obama has delighted abortion rights advocates, he has dialed back some earlier ambitions. In 2007, he promised Planned Parenthood that “the first thing I’d do as president” would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which effectively codifies Roe v. Wade. Now he says the bill is “not my highest legislative priority,” as he put it at a recent news conference.
Mr. Obama is also reaching out. At his direction, his top domestic policy adviser, Melody C. Barnes, is convening a series of discussions with people on both sides of the debate, with a goal to draft a set of policy recommendations by late summer.
“What we’ve said to people is, ‘This isn’t an opportunity to relitigate Roe v. Wade,’ ” Ms. Barnes said. “The president wants us to talk about reducing unintended pregnancies, but he doesn’t want this to be the conversation that never ends. His goal is to get something done.”
David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta who backed Mr. Obama despite their differences on abortion, has participated in the talks. He said the president was sending a message to moderate Catholics and evangelicals that “he clearly knows what the bright red lines are and is trying to avoid stepping over them.”
But religious conservatives and more ardent abortion opponents who have not been included say Mr. Obama is trying to have it both ways. Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an advocacy group, said that if the president really wanted to forge consensus, he would advocate rules allowing parents to be notified if their teenage daughters sought an abortion and banning the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. As an Illinois state senator, Mr. Obama voted “present” on such initiatives, enabling their defeat.
“Moderate rhetoric, hard-left policies,” said Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, a vocal abortion opponent, assessing Mr. Obama’s approach.
Polls show that the American public is deeply conflicted over abortion and that support has declined steadily over the years. In 1995, roughly 60 percent of Americans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Last month, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, that number stood at 46 percent. A Gallup survey that examined seven decisions early in Mr. Obama’s presidency found that the least popular was the one to overturn the ban on sending tax dollars to organizations that provide abortions overseas.
Douglas W. Kmiec, a constitutional scholar and former Notre Dame professor who was an outspoken critic of abortion when he worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, said he had been advising the White House to use the speech at the university on Sunday to tackle the controversy head on, with the president making the case that “we already have agreement, we both respect life, we both view abortion as a moral tragedy.”
But as to whether Mr. Obama can indeed transcend the culture wars, Mr. Kmiec sounded uncertain.
“If there’s anybody who can, it’s the president,” he said. “Whether the culture wars will let him is the question, and the answer is unknown.”