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.
Axelrod went on: “Not here in Illinois, because when I think of Barack Obama here, there were people like Abner Mikva and Newt Minow, and he and I have been close for years. So, it was kind of a foreign concept to me.” Mikva and Minow, childhood friends from Milwaukee, are two of the most prominent liberal Jewish figures in Chicago, if not the country. Mikva is a former congressman and federal judge whose youngest daughter is a Reform rabbi. Minow, who served as chair of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, helped finance the Israeli port city of Ashdod in 1958 as a lawyer for Philip Klutznick, a major Chicago real-estate developer and former president of B’nai B’rith International. Minow was the first of the pair to meet Obama, through his daughter, Martha, a professor of Obama’s at Harvard Law School who has since become the school’s dean. “I expected something spectacular, and when he got here, he was,” Minow told me. “What I’ve always said about Barack is that he combines a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. He sees things in a very calm way.” (Minow hired Obama for a summer job at his law firm, Sidley Austin, where the young law student met a young associate and fellow Harvard Law alumna named Michelle Robinson, whom he eventually married.)
Obama’s Jewish circle expanded further in the run-up to the 1992 presidential election, when he helped run registration drives for the Democratic Party’s Project Vote and met Bettylu Saltzman, Philip Klutznick’s daughter and a doyenne of the city’s Democratic establishment. Saltzman, in turn, introduced Obama to Axelrod, the son of a Russian Jew whose family fled Bessarabia for New York. By the time Obama ran for state senate, in 1996, his Jewish support was so deep that it became a liability: Some of his poorer black constituents on the South Side of Chicago thought of Obama as the “African-American plaything” of the white, liberal, and predominantly Jewish elite in Hyde Park, as David Remnick wrote in his biography The Bridge.
As a national candidate in 2008, Obama may have come in second to only Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in knowing the folkways of American Jewish culture. At countless lunches at Axelrod’s favorite lunch spot in Hyde Park, Manny’s Deli, Obama had learned to order pastrami with mustard on rye. His tradition of hosting Passover Seders—in 2009 he held the first-ever in the White House—started on the campaign trail, when Obama joined staffers in Harrisburg, Penn., for an ad hoc meal facilitated by a Seder kit from the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel. “If he’d wanted to do a big PR thing, he would have found a prominent Jew’s house in Philadelphia and made sure reporters were there,” said Alan Solow, a longtime supporter from Chicago and, as a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of Obama’s key Jewish surrogates. “But he’d been to Seders before in Chicago, and no one had to explain to him what it was, so it was a perfectly natural thing for him to choose to go.”
This familiarity may, ironically, have helped sow the seeds of Obama’s later friction with Jews beyond Illinois. Another candidate with fewer Jewish friends might naturally have sought out the “official” representatives of the community for support, but Obama had his own Jewish kitchen cabinet. “There’s a lot of Jewish support for the president, or for the senator, or whatever he was then,” Bettylu Saltzman told me when we spoke last year. “But it was not necessarily organized Jewish support—people like Newt Minow or Abner Mikva and people like that, they weren’t part of the organized Jewish community.” Plus, Obama was making an outside run against someone who had spent the previous eight years working to become exceptionally beloved by the Jewish establishment: Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator.
As early as February 2008, people were already talking about Obama’s “kishkes factor”—the question of whether he feels Israel in his gut—and dismissing, without any serious explanation, Obama’s pro-Israel voting record in the Senate and his appearances at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The problem was compounded by Obama’s decision not to campaign in Florida after the state’s leaders bucked the national party by advancing its primary to January—leaving him a virtual stranger when it came to the general election among people there who had months to absorb the attacks painting him as everything from a closet Muslim to an outright anti-Semite. “I think there were specific concerns that flowed not from any particular issues but just from the fact of the name,” Axelrod told me.
Even today, Axelrod added, he still encounters people who don’t believe the president has any sympathy for Israel. “I was at an event recently, a Jewish event, at which someone said, ‘Wouldn’t the president have a better perspective on security issues if he visited Israel?’ ” Axelrod told me. “And I said, ‘I was there with him.’ ” Obama went to the Jewish state as a senator in 2006 with Lee Rosenberg, a Chicago music mogul and longtime booster who is now president of AIPAC. A second trip in 2008 included a visit to Sderot, the Israeli city near the border with Gaza, hosted by Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, complete with a press conference held in front of the city’s iconic bank of spent mortar shells. “He strongly believes that no one should have to live with that kind of threat, and in fact his visit there strengthened his views on that,” Axelrod went on. “But this guy didn’t know he’d been there.”
The work of winning the Jews falls to many people. In May, Obama finally appointed an ambassador to Tel Aviv, Daniel Shapiro, a calming figure who speaks both Hebrew and Arabic. He replaced James Cunningham, a career diplomat held over from George W. Bush Administration. In August, the Obama campaign hired Ira Forman, the former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, to run Jewish outreach, and initiated weekly strategy conference calls between David Axelrod and a core group of Jewish surrogates—Wasserman Schultz, former Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, fundraiser Penny Pritzker, and Alan Solow among them. Finally, in September, the White House named its first full-time liaison to the Jewish community, Jarrod Bernstein, who previously worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
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