Obama’s Women’s Issues Point Person, Karen Kornbluh, Gets It

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Obama’s Women’s Issues Point Person, Karen Kornbluh, Gets It

Sarah Seltzer

When it comes to actual solutions for families, Obama's policy "brain" Karen Kornbluh has a clear and comprehensive prescription--with programs that go as far as many advocates' wilder dreams.

As the eyes of the press and
public try to peer around the curtain surrounding the Obama transition
team, women’s and reproductive rights advocates feel a certain confidence. Karen Kornbluh, formerly Obama’s Senate policy
director, is the point person for women’s issues during the interim
period. Kornbluh has long been tagged by the press as one of the
"brains" behind the Obama juggernaut. 

"It’s a marvelous signal,"
says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist
. "She’s
a strong extremely knowledgeable on women’s rights issues and women’s

Before being hired by Obama
early on for his Senate office, Kornbluh was known in DC policy circles
for her essays on work-family balance–an issue that shouldn’t be
relegated to "women’s issues" but often is. She coined the term
"juggler families" describing families that rely on incomes from
two working parents or one single parent: in other words, there’s
no one at home taking care of the kids, and every dollar coming in is
necessary to maintain the household. 

"We’re delighted that Karen
is on the Obama team," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, president of
advocacy group Momsrising. "We really think she understands
the shared struggles of working
families, and in particular the struggles of moms.  It can’t
be overestimated how important the economic struggles of moms are." 

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Balancing Act 

While Kornbluh’s primary
focus has been on economic issues facing women, she did oversee the
drafting of the Democratic
party’s platform

this year, which included a
strong affirmation of reproductive rights

from contraception and comprehensive sex ed to support for mothers and
pregnant women, to solid support for abortion rights. 

Both "abortion reduction"
religious groups and reproductive health groups felt the wording was a victory, which
may point to Kornbluh’s ability, like her boss, to be inclusive without
compromising her agenda.  

Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood’s
Vice-President for Public Policy, says that process earned Kornbluh plaudits from
the community and assurance of her deep comprehension of the issues.
"She’s incredibly thoughtful and strategic and very smart," says
Rubiner. "When she  wrote the Democratic platform she did a tremendous
job balancing all considerations and putting together formidable document.
It says a lot, as she has quite a balancing act to do." 

A List of Prescriptions
for Working Families

When it comes to actual solutions
for families, Kornbluh has a clear and comprehensive prescription–with
programs that go as far as many advocates’ wilder dreams. She written
extensively about what a system that gave equal opportunities to working
families would
look like.

    Reforms should include
    citizen-based health insurance, subsidized by income; progressive retirement
    accounts; new refundable, tax-subsidized accounts to help parents save
    for the expenses of having a family; universal pre-K and after-school
    programs; and childcare subsidies and workplaces that do not penalize
    parents who need flexibility to care for kids. 

But on the same level, Korbluh
has demonstrated the process that leads to these reforms is a nuanced
one, that image matters and that sweeping reforms are a process. On
the question of whether work-family balance and parental leave should
be framed as a "mother’s issue," she told an interviewer in a 2005 article in
Brain Child magazine

    "I do think it’s still
    important to keep mothers in the title… Mothers are the ones up in
    the night worrying about what’s going to happen to them if they divorce
    and they’re left with a big gaping hole in their Social Security. At
    the same time, men must start taking their family leave, demanding part-time
    jobs and childcare before we’ll see real change."  

Setting priorities 

As Obama and his staff gets
ready to take office, and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate prep their legislation, Kornbluh, the staff and others are assessing
what to prioritize, and women’s groups are eager to get cracking. 

One reproductive rights bill
that may be out of reach until the next election, however, is the Freedom of Choice
, which, although
supported by Obama, would eliminate the obstacles states have put in
place for women getting abortions. 

"We have 43 solid pro-choice
votes. Even if the resolution of both of the outstanding Senate races
went our way, we don’t have the votes to pass it. That’s the reality.
It’s not because it’s not something we care about," says Rubiner
of Planned Parenthood. 

As for bills like the REAL Act and the Prevention First act, which
seek to expand contraception access and introduce comprehensive sex
ed (and of which Barack Obama was a sponsor), Rubiner is more optimistic,
saying the tone of the election would benefit the bill as a non-nonsense,
solutions-oriented bill. "There’s real strong support in congress
for that, supporters on both sides of the aisle," says Rubiner.  

Rowe-Finkbeiner and Smeal both
add that a quick passage of the Lily
Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

and expansion of the State
Children’s Health Insurance Program

are huge boosts for women that could go through congress and get signed
into law fairly quickly. 

Momsrising’s other priorities
are state funding for the Family and Medical Leave Insurance as part
of any economic stimulus package, and passage of the Healthy Families
, which ensures
paid sick days, and eliminating waiting periods for immigrant women
and children in the process of expanding SCHIP and health care access.  

Smeal of the Feminist Majority
added that the most important thing the Obama administration could do
was start reversing as many of the Bush administrations executive orders
and mitigating the effect of midnight appointments. On the international
front, she hopes the Obama administration will release funds for UNFPA
and reverse the Global
Gag Rule

"In the first 6 months,
the damage can be repaired preferably with a bang, right at the beginning."
Kornbluh, she adds, "knows the policies and can hit the ground running." 

More articles by Kornbluh: 

Joy of Flex
the "Washington Monthly" 

Valued (On "Juggler Families")

in the New Democracy journal (subscription only).