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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.

Allison Hoffman
December 21, 2011
(Daniel Hertzberg)
(Daniel Hertzberg)

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?’ ”

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.

“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.

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.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.