The very next day, he alarmed some of the same liberals when his administration overruled the Food and Drug Administration to block over-the-counter sale of emergency contraceptives to young teenagers.
It is not the first time Mr. Obama has sent such divergent signals in the tumultuous third year of his presidency. Last month, he sided with environmental activists in delaying a decision on whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil down to the Gulf of Mexico from Canada.
That was after the president, in September, angered the same constituency by deferring new Environmental Protection Agency smog regulations until 2013. In talks on a deficit-reduction “grand bargain” over the summer, he entertained raising the retirement age and curbing Social Security benefits — then shelved that, and blasted Republicans for refusing to accept higher taxes on affluent Americans.
In part, these decisions reflect every president’s obligation to take up some fights but not others, to gratify core supporters most of the time but selectively challenge them in the name of reaching a wider audience. President George W. Bush roiled his base on education, Medicare and bailouts while doggedly advancing conservative goals on taxes and national security.
Yet with Mr. Obama the dissonant chords have sometimes been amplified by the scale of possibilities he has embodied. From his national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he held out the promise of unifying “blue America” and “red America” even while embracing mainstream Democratic liberalism.
Now, a shrinking set of political options has thrown his attempts to balance ideology and pragmatic compromise into sharper relief as he girds for a daunting 2012 re-election campaign.