Amid an ongoing debate over what some Democrats are calling the Republican "war on women," President Obama on Friday touted a distinctly pro-women agenda, delivering a personal message about his commitment to increasing equality and opportunities for women and girls of "all stages of life."
The president, speaking at a White House forum on women and the economy, reflected on recent debates over political issues relating to women and women's health, arguing that "the conversation's been oversimplified."
"Women are not some monolithic bloc. Women are not an interest group," he said. "You shouldn't be treated that way."
The panel comes just days after a new USA Today/Gallup poll showed that women in 12 top battleground states favor the president by 18 points when matched up against Mitt Romney, the man many believe will be his Republican rival for the presidency come November. That's a 7-point boost for the president since the poll was conducted in January and February, and since the explosion of a number of controversial debates surrounding contraception and Planned Parenthood. Among men, the poll showed Romney leading Mr. Obama by one point.
The national data shows a similar gender disparity: According to a Pew poll from March, Obama leads Romney 58 percent to 38 percent among women voters, while the two run about even among men.
Surrounded onstage by a diverse group of accomplished women on Friday, the president talked about gender barriers that women in his own life have struggled to overcome. He pledged that for him, achieving equality is a "personal matter."
"When I think about these efforts, when we put together this Council on Women and Girls, this is personal. That's what is at the heart of all our efforts. These are the experiences -- the prism through which I view these efforts," he said. "That's what we mean when we say that these issues are more than just a matter of policy. And when we talk about these issues that primarily impact women, we've got to realize they are not just women's issues; they are family issues, they are economic issues, they are growth issues, they are issues about American competitiveness, they are issues that impact all of us."
The president cited legislation like the Lily Ledbetter Act for fair pay-- the first bill he signed into law upon taking office -- as well as efforts to help women business owners as evidence of his commitment to women.
Still, he acknowledged, "once [women] get out of college we still have a lot of ground to cover."
"Just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women," Mr. Obama said. "Fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress are occupied by women."
"Is it possible that Congress will get more done if there were more women in Congress?" he joked, laughing. "Is that fair to say, Joe? I think it's fair to say. That is -- that is almost guaranteed."
Romney's relationship with women voters has come under increased scrutiny as he appears increasingly poised to lock up the Republican presidential nomination.
In a recent interview with Newsmax, the former Massachusetts governor seemed to acknowledge the disparity in the polls, responding to a question about the polling data that "I think this will pass as an issue as people understand our real position" on issues like birth control.
He has also referred to his wife Ann as something of an ambassador to women, telling journalists in a speech at the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) earlier this week that his wife had been sending him "reports" about the issues women prioritize.
"My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own...She reports to me regularly that the issues women care about most is the economy and getting good jobs for their kids and for themselves. They're concerned about gasoline prices," Romney said. "That's what women care about in this country and my vision is to get America working again, short term and long term."
Democrats have wasted few opportunities to target Republicans over their positions on issues related to women.
In a Friday interview with MSNBC, Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz lambasted "Romney and the Republicans" for being "callously indifferent" to women's interests.
"You know, what Mitt Romney and the Republicans have been doing to themselves every single day is showing women in this country day after day that they are callously indifferent to women's health, the priorities of women," she said. "You know, if they're still wondering why there's an 18-point gender gap and President Obama is ahead of Mitt Romney by that many points, then they really -- they really must believe these things that they're saying. Shocking."