Jewish Voters, Obama and Health Care: Trouble Ahead?

The latest Gallup poll indicates that in September, President Obama’s approval rating held steady at 52 percent. He has dropped from the stratosphere into the rough-and-tumble territory of normal politics. Among Jews, his support level is still a healthy 64 percent. While Jews are still far more pro-Obama than whites in general (who are at 44 percent), Jewish backing of the president has declined from their 78 percent vote for him in November and their 83 percent approval rating in January.

Obama’s decline in Jewish support is much like that among Hispanics and other whites, who have been drifting downward for months. Clearly the long march toward health care reform has taken its toll. It has particularly hurt Obama among older voters, the least enthusiastic of all voter groups about changes to the health care system. Ronald Brownstein wrote recently in the National Journal that Obama has been hurt among older white voters (39 percent approval), whose high turnout is a key in the 2010 midterm elections. According to Gallup, only 32 percent of those 65 or older would advise their member of Congress to vote for the new health care law (whatever it is), the weakest support of all age groups. This is pretty close to the 31 percent support among whites of all ages for the proposed health care legislation.

And Jewish voters tend to be older.

The National Jewish Population Survey found that in 2000-01, the median age for Jews was 42, compared to 35 for the U.S. as a whole. Nineteen percent of Jews were over 65 years of age, compared to 13 percent of all Americans. Most likely, these differences remain a decade later.

Overall, elderly voters were less likely to vote for Obama than younger voters in 2008. Yet older Jews are not so easy to pigeonhole. A pre-election Gallup poll found older Jews seven points more likely to plan to vote for Obama than younger Jews. And yet, the health care debate has thrown fear into the hearts of all elderly voters. Perhaps some of this concern has influenced older Jews.

A key part of the Republican strategy against health care reform is to scare seniors. The “socialism” charge may not be very effective with elderly Jewish voters, many of whom remember the same argument being used against Medicare in 1965. Fear of socialism probably works best with ideologically conservative voters. But telling seniors that they may lose their Medicare benefits, that the government is planning to set up “death panels” to decide who lives or dies or that the administration wants to “pull the plug on grandma” must be potent.

Ironically, the party that has been most hostile to Medicare is gaining ground among Medicare recipients by suggesting that a public option like Medicare would hurt Medicare. But nobody ever said politics is fair or logical. Democrats are going to have to be much more aggressive in countering Republican fear tactics with seniors. It would not hurt to start with Jewish seniors, who are extraordinarily well informed about public affairs.

New programs on the scale of the health-care legislation are always wrenching. Social Security and Medicare brought along new payroll taxes on working Americans that people have to pay long before they enjoy the benefits of the programs. The Democrats must now pass a bill that offers enough long-term benefits to make the short-term dislocations bearable.

Those who are telling the White House that they must pass a bill, any bill, are making a serious mistake. What makes all the legislative trouble worthwhile will be the outcome. And this has two key tests — one personal and the other political. The personal test is whether many people will be better off in their health care than they were without the bill. This will be harder to achieve than it appears, because the health insurers and their well-connected lobbyists want guaranteed new customers without changing much of their current business model. Regulating insurance to prevent the exclusion of people with pre-existing conditions is very popular, but it will be a dud if the regulation is weak and inconsistent. Will coverage for the uninsured really be affordable? A third of Hispanics do not have health insurance — will the bill provide a credible way to get them under the health-care umbrella?

The political test is: Will those who vote against the bill someday have to apologize for it? Or will it be a badge of political honor? When is the last time you heard someone brag about having opposed Medicare? In 2010, seniors are likely to comprise a disproportionate block of those who vote, and the midterm elections will be seen as a first test of the new health-care policy. For Democrats, the key will be to rise above the muddy politics of lawmaking inside the Beltway and the current drag in the polls, and to translate the new health-care plan into language for the rest of us.

Will it make our lives better? Will the dislocations be worth it? Instead of worrying about getting Republican votes, Democrats should be thinking about creating a bill that Republicans will worry about voting against.

This is political history in the making.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.