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.
“We win on the facts,” the people behind the campaign’s Jewish outreach told me again and again. “Once reality meets the whisper campaign, the president does really well,” Marc Stanley, a Dallas lawyer who currently chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council, told me in early December. In rare instances, Obama himself has taken up the drumbeat. In late November, Obama attended a private fundraiser at the Manhattan home of Jack Rosen, a longtime Bill Clinton supporter who chairs the American Jewish Congress. “I try not to pat myself too much on the back,” Obama said that night, according to a transcript released by the White House, “but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.”
Republicans assume that support for Israel is the key to attracting more Jewish voters. That’s why Republican presidential candidates up the pro-Israel ante at every opportunity: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would visit as soon as he is elected president, he has said; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann says she’d move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem the day she’s inaugurated, and so on. But the working assumption for Democrats is that, for most Jewish voters, support for Israel functions as a threshold issue: a bar that has to be met.
In 2008, the “Israel bar” was set low. Obama was mobilizing a frustrated electorate that was primed to believe in his message of hope and change, and, particularly after Sen. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, eager to choose cerebral over down-home. It felt good to be on Team Obama. Three years later, the situation is radically different: Most voters, including a large percentage of Jewish ones, don’t feel good about anything the president has done—or, perhaps more accurately, about all the things he hasn’t managed to do. Because he made the Arab-Israeli peace an early priority, that list includes presiding over the complete collapse of the relationship between Jerusalem and Ramallah at a time when the rest of the Middle East is crumbling.
As a result, visuals and rhetoric—the kishkes factor—have taken on outsized importance. Here, too, Obama has an unusually thorny political problem: the specter of Bill Clinton, specifically of Bill Clinton in a kippah, weeping for Yitzhak Rabin with the words, “Shalom, haver.” “We have the record against the aesthetics here,” said David Saperstein, executive director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “The Clinton-Rabin relationship was something extraordinarily special, and it set a very high bar.” It’s a gap Republican partisans know they do well to exploit. “I’ve been asked, ‘Who is the best friend Israel has in the White House?’ ” Fred Zeidman, a Houston oil executive who handled Jewish outreach for McCain and is now assisting the Romney campaign, told me last week. “And I say, ‘Hillary Clinton.’ This is the woman who kissed Suha Arafat. But that’s why, I hate to say it, she’s the best we’ve got.”
The truth is that aside from Clinton and Rabin, no recent president has had that kind of chemistry with a leader of Israel. Reagan paid tribute at a German cemetery at Bitburg that included the graves of SS soldiers, drawing promises from Rabin and then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that the Jewish people would never forgive him. The first George Bush went to blows with Yitzhak Shamir over the government’s settlement policy, and George W. Bush, with a major assist from his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, forced the catastrophic miscalculation that allowed Hamas to hijack Gaza’s elections in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s 2005 pullout. Bill Clinton, for his part, actually sent his own star political advisers—James Carville and Stan Greenberg—to Israel in 1999 to work for the defeat of Netanyahu, then a sitting prime minister, in favor of Ehud Barak and the Labor Party. “Excuse me,” said David Luchins, a longtime aide to the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Obama is no better, and no worse.”
For all the White House Seders, Jewish Heritage Month receptions, and Hanukkah parties—complete with kashered White House kitchen—Obama has yet to strike a convincing pose to match Clinton in his kippah, or Palin running around in her gigantic Star of David pendant. “People expect it when it comes to Israel,” Saperstein said. “And when they don’t see it, it creates a vacuum that gets filled by people whose narratives offer explanations for what it means.”
On a far wall of the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, next to a conference room, hangs a framed collection of buttons from the 2008 race. There’s Doctors for Obama, Cat Lovers for Obama, Alaskan Wildlife, Hadron Colliders, Deadheads, Unicorns—and, off to the far right side of the frame, Jewish Americans for Obama. Other buttons list countries supporting Obama; up along the top of the frame, nestled between Russia and Peru, is Israel for Obama.
Hebrew Union College prides itself on being open and pluralistic. But some Reform rabbinical students say the reality contradicts this vision.