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.
With the exception—perhaps—of the unicorns, these are the constituencies Axelrod has to mobilize between now and next fall. So far, he has given the lead on Jewish issues to Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the president’s kitchen kibitzers. But Axelrod, like his boss, is a born storyteller, and when we met, he wasn’t interested in rattling off facts. He was, uniquely in the constellation of Obama’s Jewish surrogates, eager to tell a story.
“In 2009,” he began, “I got to travel to Russia with the president, and I stood there in Red Square with him in a line of dignitaries as the Russian Army played our national anthem, and it turns out this was the eve of what would have been my father’s 99th birthday.” Axelrod went on, marveling at the fact that he, the son of Jewish émigrés, wound up in Moscow as an aide to the leader of the United States of America, a president whose own story affirms everything that Jews have always believed about the Goldene Medina. “My story’s not unique. My story’s very common. The fact that I’m first generation is somewhat different but we all have stories like that. Our country is a nation of immigrants, and it is a place of unbounded freedom.”
Axelrod, an old hand at identity politics, knows that what voters really want to hear are yarns that make them believe Obama’s story is their story too. Last week, Obama gave them just that. At the biennial convention of the Union of Reform Judaism, in front of a crowd of 6,000, the president got up and reached back into the bag of tricks Axelrod taught him as a candidate.
The speech was written by a young White House speechwriter named David Litt, who went to work for Obama in 2008 after graduating from Yale, but heavily workshopped among those Jews closest to the president’s team. There was the almost obligatory recital of facts—“I am proud to say that no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours, none—don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise, it is a fact”—but the speech was mainly an exercise in schmaltz. The president talked about his 13-year-old daughter, Malia, and how they fight over the skimpy dresses she wants to wear to her friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs. Then he segued into a d’var Torah on the weekend’s appointed portion, the story of Joseph going down into Egypt and from there into the hope of generations of downtrodden Jews, persecuted from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, that their children could have something better. “I know what it’s like to think, ‘Only in America is my story even possible,’ ” Obama said, prompting a swell of applause. It continued as he vowed that he was—as a member of the 1 percent—willing to pay his fair share in taxes, to fight special interests, to continue the struggle for a better tomorrow. “When I look back on the last few years, I’m proud of the decisions I’ve made, and I’m proud of what we’ve done together,” he said. “We’ve got to keep going.”
This, ultimately, will be how Obama will win the Jews: not with lawyerly responses and tactical reasoning, but by matching the emotional appeal his opponents are trafficking in with the same kind of uplift that carried him to the White House in the first place. “You’re three years into the administration, and that’s a little different than having proffered a governing theory over the last three years,” said Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked for both Bill Clinton and Al Gore. “But,” he went on, “this guy has unique skills. The elements he needs to create the message exist.”
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