United Jewish Appeal
Support for President Obama is sagging among a key Democratic voting bloc. Now his campaign has 11 months to win back Jewish voters.
Earlier this month, the Republican presidential candidates convened in a Washington ballroom to lay out their case that President Barack Obama has been bad for Israel—and, by extension, bad for the Jews. That afternoon, in a rushed conference call, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, took a break between floor votes to tell reporters why the GOP candidates were wrong. “The facts of President Obama’s record are unambiguously clear,” Wasserman Schultz said, rattling off a laundry list: an increase in foreign aid to Israel, more joint military exercises between the two militaries, and successful opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations. “As an American Jewish leader,” Wasserman Schultz said, “I am extremely proud of President Obama’s ongoing commitment to Israel.”
With Election Day less than a year away, the core of the Obama campaign’s play for Jewish votes is simple: Overwhelm what the Obama camp sees as Republicans’ bald emotionalism on Israel with a flood of facts and figures. Obama’s campaign website has a section devoted to Jewish issues that includes a seven-page PDF documenting the president’s support for Israel, with a six-page supplement titled “President Obama’s Stance on Israel: Myths vs. Facts.” (“Myth: President Obama believes that Israel is at the root of all problems in the Middle East today. Fact: President Obama declared Israel a source of inspiration for the American people as the sole true democracy in the Middle East.”)
Obama is heading into what promises to be a tough campaign, in which he will need all the enthusiastic support he can get—especially in crucial swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, all of which include substantial Jewish electorates. And while it’s hard to imagine a majority of Jewish votes going to Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, a lukewarm showing among the people of the three Velts makes his task that much harder. A recent Gallup poll, conducted in September, showed Jewish support for Obama had plunged 29 points since his inauguration in January 2009. And this fall, in the most Jewish district in the country, disgraced Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s seat went to a neophyte Republican candidate, a result voters—albeit Orthodox and therefore not representative of the Jewish vote nationwide—there said they intended to be seen as a referendum on the Obama Administration’s stance toward Israel.
Ask anyone in Obamaland about what is now commonly referred to as the president’s Jewish problem, and the same answer will inevitably follow: “It’s not us, it’s you.” Or, more typically, “it’s them”—the vocal cadres of the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and similarly hawkish groups that, in the administration’s view, have turned Israel into an emotional wedge issue for Jewish voters, in much the same way right-wing groups used abortion to pull Catholics and evangelical Christians away from the Democratic Party in the 1980s. “To the extent we have a problem,” Wasserman Schultz told me last week, “it’s being created by individuals who know that Republicans can’t appeal to Jews on their domestic issues and are attempting to mischaracterize, distort, and lie about the president’s record to create enough distrust in the community to shave off a little bit of support here and there.”
But ask actual voters, and even ardent supporters of the president say the problem is acute. “You say he’s against Israel enough times, and eventually people believe it,” one Obama donor told me earlier this month in Los Angeles, where a recent cover of the local Jewish Journal featured the headline “Angry Jews” on an image of mad-as-hell Howard Beale. “In this town,” the donor went on, “he’s got a Jewish problem.”
Some Jewish voters have sharp policy disagreements with the White House, whether over the president’s early decision to condition Israeli-Palestinian talks on a settlement-construction freeze or his initial commitment to engaging the Iranian regime in talks over its nuclear ambitions. But it is the seemingly endless series of diplomatic and rhetorical faux pas that has reinforced an anxiety among many Jewish voters—including lifelong Democrats—that Obama is somehow not on their side. There was the notorious photo op-less summit between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2010. Just this month, the administration’s ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, the son of a Holocaust survivor, gave a speech drawing distinctions between classical anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which was criticized by Obama antagonists as blaming Israel for contemporary Muslim antipathy toward Jews. Days later came Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s exhortation, at the end of an evening seminar at the Brookings Institution, for Israel to “get to the damn table.”
That these mini-controversies continue to reverberate suggests that Obama’s “Jewish problem” is, at base, an emotional one: a failure to connect with and respond to the concerns of his Jewish constituents. These are voters, it seems, who would find it easier to tune out Republican smears of Obama as anti-Israel if only they had an image of the president addressing the Knesset, or, better yet, splitting a hummus with Benjamin Netanyahu on Jaffa Road.
David Axelrod is still perplexed by how hard it was to sell his man to Jewish voters last time around. “We had to work for that vote,” he told me just before Thanksgiving, when we met in the empty conference room he uses at Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago’s Loop. “There was sort of, you know, ‘Where’s he coming from?’ ”
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