Opinion: The Post-Kumbaya President


I wonder where Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are having dinner tonight.

Four years ago, while Democrats danced at inaugural balls, Reps. Cantor and Ryan dined at The Caucus Room, a Capitol Hill steakhouse, along with other top Republicans, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Sens. Jim DeMint, John Kyl and Tom Coburn. 

Barack Obama’s presidency was by then all of eight hours old.  At midday, the man who rocketed to prominence in 2004 by declaring America to be not red states or blue states, but the United States, had told the nation, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” With those words, and the applause of 1.8 million Americans on the National Mall still ringing in their ears, some 15 GOP leaders discreetly gathered in the restaurant’s private room to decide what to do with the olive branch the president had extended.

As we know from a new ““>Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Caucus Room caucus decided, in Draper’s words, “to fight Obama on everything – this meant unyielding opposition to every one of the Obama administration’s legislative initiatives.”

No matter what was on Obama’s agenda, even if it was identical to Republican proposals, they planned to attack it.  No matter how many times Obama met with them, sought common ground or negotiated with himself, their strategy was to keep the number of Republican votes he got for anything whatsoever as close to zero as possible.  

This happened before there was a Tea Party, before there were 87 far-right GOP freshmen, before the birthers had migrated from the lunatic fringe to the party’s mainstream.  The economy was in crisis; a second Great Depression was conceivable.  Also conceivable was actually working together on behalf of the country.  But from night one of day one, the Republicans decided to torpedo Obama, a sentiment echoed the next year when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said publicly that denying President Obama a second term was his top priority.

Now that second term has begun.  The president has had plenty of experience with Republican intransigence.  He has learned the hard way that you can’t sing Kumbaya as a solo.  But even so, in his second inaugural he said that the oath he swore, “like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”  Though he surely has the Republicans’ number by now, he said, nevertheless, that “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” that we cannot “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”  Was any of that more than wishful thinking?

Seven times he said “together”; five times he said “we, the people.”  Does he really think his opponents are capable of collaborating, or is he just laying down a marker to collect when they behave badly? 

A lot is riding on the answer.  “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” he promised at heartening length; “we will preserve our planet.”  But scores of Republican science-deniers hold very safe seats in gerrymandered House districts; they will face no electoral penalty for sticking it to the president every chance they get.  Immigration reform, tax reform, school reform, gun control: It’s hard to imagine Luntz, Gingrich & Co. working up a different playbook for dealing with the 2012 Obama agenda in a back room at steakhouse 2.0 than they did four years ago. 

Though the president didn’t put a fix for Citizens United in his inaugural address – isn’t fighting political corruption as important as the long shot legislation that made it into the speech? – he did use the word “citizen” eight times.  He said it at the top (“fellow citizens,” instead of the traditional “fellow Americans”), and he said it repeatedly in the peroration. 

I connect that word “citizen” with something else he said.  Between going after absolutism and rejecting name-calling, he said that we cannot “substitute spectacle for politics.”  In an age when the public holds politicians in such low esteem, it’s so striking that he chose to use “politics” as a positive term. 

Politics is what citizens do – that’s what I took him to mean.  Spectacles need spectators; democracies need citizens.  Spectacles treat citizens as consumers, markets, eyeballs to sell to advertisers.  Politics treat citizens as stakeholders, constituents – people to listen to, not just persuade.  Spectacles are circuses to distract us; citizens know the risk we run of “>most important political event of the past week may turn out to be neither the inaugural, nor the sirloin-fueled cabal it may have prompted, but rather the morphing of Obama for America into Organizing for Action.  Obama for America was an attempt to convert his 2008 ground game into a grassroots group at the Democratic National Committee, but it barely played a part in his first term’s legislative battles.  Organizing for Action will try not to make that mistake again.  His 2012 top command is determined to make the 2012 vote the beginning, not the end, of political action.  His first term was about negotiations between party elites; his second term will be about mobilizing citizen power. 

That thrilling phrase in his second inaugural – “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” – is about citizens, not spectators, about activists, not audiences.  If Washington actually ends up, despite steakhouse obstructionism, doing something important about climate change or guns or anything else on the president’s shortlist, it will not be because we saw his inauguration on television, but because we took his fate, and ours, in our own hands.

 

Marty Kaplan is the “>martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Obama in second inaugural speaks of a united America, U.S. involvement abroad


President Obama in his second inaugural address spoke of U.S. involvement throughout the world and Americans working together at home.

Obama was sworn in publicly for his second term at 11:50 a.m. Monday by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Some 800,000 people reportedly thronged the area to witness the inauguration.

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

In his address, Obama focused on the promise of American democracy and all Americans working for the common good. He spoke of the allegiance to the Constitution and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,” he said. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

The president alluded to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day set aside in the United States to commemorate the slain human rights activist.

Obama said the U.S. “must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”

He called for a response to the threat of climate change, and praised the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed services. Obama also spoke of equality for women in the workplace and for gays.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the inaugural ceremonies chairman, opened the ceremony and introduced the participants.

Obama was sworn in officially on Sunday, the inauguration day mandated by the Constitution, in a private ceremony.

Netanyahu congratulates Obama on re-election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday for winning a second term and said the strategic alliance between their two countries was “stronger than ever”.

“I will continue to work with President Obama to ensure the interests that are vital for the security of Israel's citizens,” Netanyahu, who has had a testy relationship with the U.S. leader, said in a short written statement.

One major rift between the two leaders has been their approach in dealing with Iran's nuclear aspirations, with the United States urging Netanyahu not to launch any go-it-alone military action.

Netanyahu faces his own electoral test in January, when Israel holds a national ballot that opinion polls predict his right-wing Likud party will win.

Netanyahu's defence minister, Ehud Barak, who was a frequent visitor to Washington over the past four years, said in his own statement he had no doubt Obama will continue his policies, which “fundamentally support Israel's security”.

“It is possible to overcome any differences in positions that may arise,” Barak said.

Networks project Obama wins re-election as U.S. President


President Barack Obama won re-election to a second term in the White House on Tuesday, television networks projected, beating Republican challenger Mitt Romney after a long and bitter campaign.

Obama defeated Romney in a series of key swing states despite a weak economic recovery and persistent high unemployment as U.S. voters decided between two starkly different visions for the country.

Obama's victory in the hotly contested swing state of Ohio – as projected by TV networks – put him over the top in the fight for the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the White House and ended Romney's hopes of pulling off a string of swing-state upsets.

Obama scored narrow wins in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire – all states that Romney had contested – while the only swing state captured by Romney was North Carolina, according to network projections.

There was no immediate word from the Romney camp on the reported results.

At least 120 million American voters had been expected to cast votes in the race between the Democratic incumbent and Romney after a campaign focused on how to repair the ailing U.S. economy.

Obama enters his second four-year term faced with a difficult task of tackling $1 trillion annual deficits, reducing a $16 trillion national debt, overhauling expensive social programs and dealing with a gridlocked U.S. Congress that looked likely to maintain the same partisan makeup.

Obama's projected victory would set the country's course for the next four years on spending, taxes, healthcare, the role of government and foreign policy challenges such as the rise of China and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Each man offered different policies to cure what ails America's weak economy, with Obama pledging to raise taxes on the wealthy and Romney offering across-the-board tax cuts as a way to ignite strong economic growth.

Inside Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters, staffers erupted into cheers and high fives as state after state was called for the president.

Obama watched the returns on television at his Chicago home. Senior campaign strategist David Axelrod said via email that he was feeling “great.”

Romney made last-minute visits to Ohio and Pennsylvania on Tuesday to try to drive up turnout in those states, while Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Ohio. Obama remained in his hometown of Chicago.

Obama’s second term: More of the same, at least until Iran flares


The day after the election looks a lot like the day before for President Obama, particularly in areas that have attracted the attention of Jewish voters: Tussling with Republicans domestically on the economy and health care, and dancing gingerly with Israel around the issue of a nuclear Iran.

With Obama's victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Senate remaining in the hands of Democrats and the U.S. House of Representatives staying Republican, that means more of the same, said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“What's amazing from a political point of view is that it's hundreds of millions dollars being spent and it's still the status quo,” he said.

The advantage, Daroff said, is that the sides get back to work, and straight away.

“There's not going to be a delay in everyone feeling out their new roles and figuring out what color the rug in the Oval Office should be,” he said.

Jewish federations and other Jewish social welfare organizations have said their immediate focus will be the “fiscal cliff” — the effort to head off sequestration, the congressional mandate to slash the budget across the board at the start of 2013.

“The fiscal cliff and specifically sequestration is a major concern,” Daroff said. “Our concern continues to be that as the nation and our political leaders continue to assess how to make cuts in spending that those cuts don't fall disproportionately on vulnerable populations that rely upon social service agencies that depend on our funding.”

Cuts of about 8.5 percent would immediately affect the viability of housing for the elderly, according to officials at B'nai B'rith International, which runs a network of homes. Officials at Jewish federations say the cuts also would curb the meals and transportation for the elderly they provide with assistance from federal programs.

Obama and Congress would have had to deal with heading off sequestration in any case, but as a president with a veto-wielding mandate of four more years, he has the leverage to head off deep cuts to programs that his top officials have said remain essential, including food assistance to the poor and medical entitlements for the poor and elderly.

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Obama's priorities would be domestic.

“While a victory in the second term tends to give you some political capital, capital is still finite,” he said, citing George W. Bush's failure in 2005 to reform Social Security, despite his decisive 2004 triumph. “This suggests to me the president will keep his focus on the economy and health care,” and not on major initiatives in the Middle East.

More broadly, four more years of “Obamacare” mean the health care reforms that Obama and a Democratic Congress passed in 2010 will be more difficult to repeal for future GOP administrations. By 2016, American voters will have habituated to mandates guaranteeing health insurance for all, including for pre-existing conditions and coverage of children by their parents until they reach the age of 26.

On these issues — entitlement programs and federal assistance for the poor — Obama and Senate Democrats have the backing of an array of Jewish groups led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella.

Additionally, Jewish advocacy organizations will look to Obama to appoint to the Supreme Court justices likely to uphold the protections favored by much of the Jewish community, including abortion rights, women’s equal pay guarantees and gay marriage gains in the states.

The exception will be the Orthodox groups, which generally align with conservative Christians on social issues.

The potential for domestic tension between some Jewish groups and the new Obama administration — and its Democratic allies who continue to lead the Senate — lies in Democrats’ plans to let lapse some of the tax cuts passed by the George W. Bush administration.

Senate Democrats in recent years have pressed organized Jewish groups to advocate for raising revenue through tax increases. Some groups have advocated for the increases, but the major social welfare policy umbrella, the Jewish Federations of North America, has resisted in part because tax hikes are controversial among a substantial portion of the federations’ donor base.

Daroff said that Jewish federations would continue to push for keeping the tax deduction rate for charitable giving at 35 percent and resist Obama administration proposals to cut it to 28 percent.

“We see from the response to Hurricane Sandy how vital charities are,” he said. “To put stumbling blocks in the way of our ability to raise charitable funds is the absolutely wrong policy.”

Unlike the looming sequestration, Obama’s most vexing first term foreign policy issue — how to deal with Iran — has gained some breathing room in recent weeks with the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arriving at an agreement that Iran will not be poised to manufacture a nuclear weapon until the spring at the earliest.

Without intimations by Israel that it might strike before then, Obama has a window to see if the tightened international and U.S. sanctions introduced during his administration will goad the Iranians into making their nuclear program more transparent. Iran’s government insists its nuclear program is peaceful but has resisted probative U.N. inspections.

Makovsky said he expected a quick return to talks with Iran, which could lead to bold new proposals, setting some of the bottom lines that have been eagerly sought by Israel. Makovsky said one scenario could be removing some sanctions in exchange for keeping Iranian uranium enrichment at 5 percent, down from the 20 percent level it currently achieves and well below the 93 percent that would make a weapon.

Another Iranian give, he said, would be to export the stockpiles of enriched uranium already on hand.

“I would predict there will be much more of a focus on bottom lines, there will be some sort of an American offer — after consultations with Israel,” Makovsky said.

Two personnel changes in the coming months in both Israel and the United States will help shape how the two nations interact.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long-standing relationships with much of the Israeli leadership, has said she is certain to quit, and there is much speculation about her successor.

Three names have been touted — Tom Donilon, the national security adviser; Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations; and U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Of the three, only Donilon has warm relations with his Israeli interlocutors. Rice has steadfastly defended Israel against formal condemnation at the United Nations, but Israeli and pro-Israel officials have been galled by the tough language she has used to describe Israeli settlement expansion.

Kerry raised some eyebrows with his sharp language about Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip following the 2009 war with Hamas. And some conservatives questioned his insistent outreach to the Assad regime in Syria prior to the protests that set off the regime's bloody oppression and the country's resulting civil war.

The other personnel change is in Israel and will be closely watched by the Obama administration. Elections there are scheduled for January, and Netanyahu and his new right-leaning alliance with Avigdor Lieberman, currently the foreign minister, may be facing a serious centrist challenge.

Four more years (of bickering)


So the Jewish vote didn’t make much difference after all. Not even in Florida. Had Romney taken Florida, had he won this election, we could have argued that the 31 percent of Jews he was able to win over in the Sunshine State played an important role in his razor-thin victory. But he lost the election, Jewish gains notwithstanding. Thus, the first lesson, then, for Jewish Republicans like Sheldon Adelson should be as follows: If you have resources to spend on campaigning, if you are truly committed to the cause, spend your time and money assisting your party in winning over the people without whom elections cannot be won: Latinos. 

Saying the 2012 elections were not as important as the candidates (and many of us) said they were is easy. The two candidates were uninspiring, as is clear from the fact that neither of them was able to attract many crossovers from the other camp. Obama was supported by Democratic voters and Romney by Republicans. They masqueraded a heated debate over issues of great significance when, in fact, they were battling over a technicality: Who’s the better man to fix the economy – an issue most well-trained voters told pollsters is the “most important” for them. 

Believing the answers voters give is as dangerous as believing the candidates’ promises. Obama and Romney painted their race in ways favorable to their main cause – getting elected. But the voters were just as unreliable: They know what they need to say; they know what is expected of them. These elections early on were defined as being about “the economy” – hence, voters’ tendency to put the economy on top. However, putting the economy on top and then saying that Romney is the better candidate on the economy, and then giving Obama the White House, is exactly what American voters did, according to the exit polls. Elections are never about one issue and are almost always about how comfortable the electorate feels with the candidates. 

That more Jews felt comfortable with President Obama is not such a big surprise. No one really expected it to go any other way. It was also quite obvious that Obama will not win as strongly with Jewish voters as he did four years ago. As this article is being written, on Tuesday night, we don’t yet have all the detailed poll data that is scheduled to be released on Wednesday by both the Jewish Republican Jewish Coalition and by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein. However, early exit polls have revealed that Obama’s standings with Jews have declined to 70 percent of the vote. Did the vigorous campaign to peal away Obama Jewish voters work at all? Romney got 30 percent of the vote. And one suspects that both Jewish Democrats and Republicans will find a way to spin these results without admitting failure. 

They will be able to do it, among other reasons, because there’s never been true agreement on the percentage of the Jewish vote that went for Obama in 2008. Hence, there will be no agreement on the percentage of Jewish voters who’ve moved away from him and into the Republican column. A recent study argued that Obama’s actual Jewish number of 2008 was 74 percent — while the 2008 exit polls gave Obama 78 percent of the Jewish vote. So the scale of the decline depends how much you believe the new research. 

Those responsible for the new research want you to believe that this is the more serious analysis of the Jewish vote. But Republican Jews want you to believe that this study is a spin aimed at making Obama look better as his 2012 numbers drop. And they did drop: 8 percent fewer Jews voted for him, compared to the 2008 exit poll. Four percent fewer compared to the recent study. Whatever the final count, there’s no denying that the climb in Jewish Republican votes appears to be a continuation of a trend. In my book about the Jewish vote, I described the drop in the Republican Jewish vote since 1992 – in fact, I described the last two decades as the decades of the-Republican-Party-is-no-longer-an-option for Jews. But the graph of the Jewish vote for the Republican Party since that big drop of the early ’90s shows a slow but steady climb back to the party being an option.

On the morning of Election Day, I spent a couple of hours harassing Jewish voters in Beachwood Ohio, not far from Cleveland. These are precincts that went 71 percent-28 percent for Obama in 2008, 65 percent-35 percent for Kerry in 2004, and 77 percent-22 percent for Gore in 2000. I can’t tell you what the numbers will be like this time, but based on the dozen or so interviews I had time to do, it is likely that Romney got numbers in these precincts closer to those of the 2004 Bush than to the 2008 McCain. Possibly even higher. 

The story of the 2012 Jewish vote, then, is a story of a growing gap between the conservative wing of the community, a large part of it Orthodox, and the rest of the community, who remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Earlier this week, in Columbus, I made a pact with a local rabbi: I could ask any question and quote any answer, as long as I didn’t give away his identity. Not a hint, not a clue. Is it not problematic for a Jew in America to have such fear of exposing one’s political beliefs? – I asked him. The rabbi laughed. “You realize”, he said, “that my so-called fear has nothing to do with non-Jews – it is the Jews that I fear.” He then asked if I’d read Roger Cohen’s article in The New York Times about “The Jews of Cuyahoga County,” which, of course, I had. The rabbi didn’t like Cohen’s use of the word “ugly” at the outset of his article (“Things are getting ugly among the Jews of Cuyahoga County, with family splits and dinner invitations declined”), but he also gave the impression that at times things are, well, becoming ugly. Not for all Jews in Cuyahoga or Columbus, not in all families. But in some cases, it does – hence, the rabbi’s obsession about not wanting to be exposed. “If I get into political issues, I’m definitely going to alienate some people from one side or the other, and more likely from both sides.” These are days of tension and bickering and highly partisan spirit. These are days in which “hardly anyone can see both sides’ arguments.”

Having met and interviewed many Ohioan Jews during my week here, I discovered that it was easy to find Obama voters (“Is there even an alternative?” one Cleveland resident asked me), and also not very hard to find Romney voters (the easiest way: look for the Orthodox shul and the kosher deli), and was more rare, but still possible, to find the 2008-Obama-disappointee. But, truly, it was easier to find people who claim to know people disappointed with Obama than to find those disappointed people in person. “Yes, I have some friends that voted for Obama in 2008 and are now voting for Romney,” Jerry Mayer told me. Stewart Ain of The Jewish Week got a better quote from a Bret Caller: “I’ve had dozens and dozens of Jewish friends who voted for Obama in ’08 say to me that they are on the fence and will make a decision in the voting booth.”

And, one must admit, many of the Ohio Jews I met in recent days tended to think about Obama and Romney in the same dichotomist manner. Romney will “ban all abortions,” a weary Bev (or was it Deb? Forgive my insensitive Israeli ears) Hart explained, knowingly. Obama is “an enemy of Israel,” an angry Rob Gold told me. No article on the 2012 Jewish race can be concluded without some discussion of the Israel issue.

My first 2012 story on the U.S. election was published on Jan. 1, reported and written in Iowa, where Mitt Romney began his long journey to win the Republican primary election and become the nominee. I had a catchy headline for it: “Witnessing European Menace Invading Des Moines.” The only real foreign reference made by Romney in the political rally I attended that week “was not about the Middle East or even China,” I wrote back then. “Romney – and some of the other candidates as well – have made Europe a topic of political conversation. As in: If we continue to have policies like we have now, we might risk “ending up being like Europe.” I was reminded of this event and of that post, as I was listening on Sunday to Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a well-kept medium-size hanger, where he made a short landing in Mansfield, Ohio. Ryan was at his very best at that event, sharp and amicable. But he had no intention of talking about anything but the U.S. economy. 

I was waiting to hear a word or two about foreign affairs. Two days before an American election, as the whole world was watching, one would have been justified to expect at least a pretense interest on the part of the American candidates in what’s happening beyond America’s borders. But no such words ever quite materialized. Obama, when I saw him last week, seemed to have little interest in talking about foreign affairs. In fact, Obama made it a habit to tell American voters that electing him is important because he’s the candidate that will do “some nation building here in America.” Obama, like Romney, is an internationalist. But both of them felt a political need to make the world disappear in the final stretch of the election.  

For Israel, a less involved America is a convenience on some matters – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but really it’s a curse. Israel needs the United States to be leading the coalition against Iran, and needs the United States to project confidence and have influence in a region that becomes more volatile by the hour – recent exchanges of fire on the Syrian border being the most recent manifestation. Obama is likely not to have much appetite to be more engaged in the region, and even less appetite to have to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but will have no choice but to do it. 

Interestingly, not since Eisenhower has Israel had to make do with a president with whom it doesn’t quite get along for two consecutive terms. Carter, Ford and the first Bush – the three presidents at the top of Israel’s list of unfavorable presidents – were all one termers, annoying to Israel’s government, but gone quickly. With Obama, it will be eight years of bickering and mistrust and miscommunication, unless one of three things happens: If Netanyahu is not re-elected; if Obama or Netanyahu determine to put an end to the sour state of relations; or if the U.S. disengages. Option No. 1 will be an important component of Israel’s coming election – a tool that Netanyahu’s rivals are going to use in hopes of convincing Israelis that the relations with Obama are reason enough for them to replace the prime minister. Option No. 2 is the preferable option – the grown-up option – and hence the less likely one. Option No. 3 is the most dangerous of them all. Better for Obama and Netanyahu to keep the bickering going – and with it the involvement of the United States in Israel-related affairs. 

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Rosner’s ‘Voter’s Guide’ offers an insider’s view


Every four years, the same question is asked in America: Which candidate will win the Jewish vote? With the 2012 presidential election teetering on a razor’s edge, however, the question takes on new importance and even a certain poignancy. That’s exactly why it caught the attention of political reporter and analyst Shmuel Rosner in “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Voter’s Guide” (Jewish Journal Books: $9.99 paperback, $8 Kindle edition). After all, as Rosner sees it, as many as 5 million Jewish voters may go to the polls next month, and that could be enough to make a difference in an election as close as this one.

“That is not to say that where the Jews go, America also goes,” concedes Rosner. But, at the same time, he insists that “Jews are seen as major political players, because they believe that their vote really counts.”

Shmuel Rosner, of course, is senior political editor of the Jewish Journal, and “The Jewish Vote” is the first title to be published by Jewish Journal Books, a newly launched publishing imprint of TRIBE Media Corp. He’s one of our own, but his analysis is also worthy of attention on its own merits.

It’s significant that Rosner is an accomplished Israeli author and journalist who is writing for an American readership in “The Jewish Vote,” which underscores how much is at stake for the Jewish state in the American presidential elections. Rosner believes that Romney stands to gain the most by cutting into the traditional Democratic edge among Jewish voters: “If he gets 30 percent or more of the Jewish vote — not an easy benchmark — it’s almost like getting an insurance policy against losing.”

Rosner enters the debate between the polarities of what he calls “the-Republican-Party-is-not-an-option-for-most-Jews era” and “the Israel-as-wedge-issue era.” He sees a new geopolitical landscape in which “Republicans [are] drawing closer to Israel, and dangers [are] drawing closer to Israel.” He acknowledges that some Jewish voters do not even consider their Jewishness when they go to the polls, but he divides those who do into two camps: “a more utopian Judaism and a more hard-nosed Judaism.” 

He is tough-minded and blunt when it comes to his take on the Jewish community in America. He suggests that progressive Jews are drawn to the Democratic party because of their allegiance to “the new religion of humanistic values (as interpreted by the modern priests of humanistic religion — namely, university professors and ‘tikkun olam’ activists)” and he contrasts them with Jewish Republicans, for whom, he says, “[V]oting for a political party is not like lighting candles: it is a political deed, not a religious one.” He characterizes his own lively book, however, as a bipartisan effort to “focus on issues that are markedly ‘Jewish’ ” and to thereby enable Jewish voters to make an informed decision between Obama and Romney.

Significantly, the issues of greatest concern to Jewish voters do not necessarily include Israel. One survey placed the economy and health care at the top of the list, and “the growing gap between the rich and the poor” ranked higher than either Israel or “the danger of Iran” in another poll. That’s why, Rosner writes, “For Mitt Romney to find [the] hidden key with which to release the Jewish lock on Democrats would require much  more than talking about his affinity for Israel.” And that’s why “Obama had the wisdom to give Jewish voters some pride that is unrelated to Israel, to remind them that they and Obama are both members of the same community of ‘justice.’ ”

Intriguingly, Rosner insists that “[Sarah] Palin is Romney’s problem with Jewish voters” — or, as he goes on to suggest, “the shadow she casts over the Republican Party.”  It’s an example of the acuity of his political vision; Rosner understands that even those Jewish voters who are attracted to Romney may feel alienated by a Republican Party “in which religious Christians have a greater voice, in which heartland America has a greater voice, in which Palin can be a candidate, in which Paul Ryan can be a candidate.”

Then, too, Rosner points out that Romney’s staunch support of Israel can be unsettling, rather than reassuring, to Jewish voters. After all, when Romney invokes Israel, the Mormon candidate is courting the Evangelical Christian vote as much as, if not more than, the Jewish vote. “If Romney can’t quite win over this vast pool of voters by force of his religious beliefs,” explains Rosner, “he can still convince them that, on matters important to them, he will pursue policies they will find more palatable.”

Obama comes under the same close and discerning scrutiny. “The list of Obama-induced assistance to Israel’s security is indeed very long, as Israeli officials readily admit,” he writes. But he also reminds us that Obama touched a nerve in the Jewish community when he stated in 2008 that “there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.” The statement takes on a new meaning when we consider Netanyahu’s outspoken interest in American party politics: “Obama was basically telling both American and future Israeli voters this: If Israel elects Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister and Americans elect Obama president, expect trouble.”

Rosner insists that he comes to understand and explain the Jewish vote, not to influence it, and his book bears him out. Anyone who consults “The Jewish Vote” before Election Day will carry into the polling booth not Rosner’s political advocacy but the wealth of information that he has gathered and the nuanced analysis that he has conducted. 

 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. He blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

First presidential debate spotlights economy, health care


President Obama and Mitt Romney focused on revenue and spending, with an emphasis on health care, in their first presidential debate. 

With the focus on the economy, foreign policy was mentioned only in passing as the candidates squared off Wednesday at the University of Denver.

Obama said Romney's plans to repeal his health care reform passed in 2010 would remove new protections, including mandatory coverage for those with preexisting conditions and coverage for children up until age 26 under their parents' plans.

Romney said such coverage was a matter best left to the states, and reiterated his claims that the federal plan inhibits business growth and costs jobs.

Obama criticized Romney's plan to transition Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, to private insurers, saying it would drive up costs for seniors. Romney said the change was needed to salvage the program.

Romney also outlined his plans for energy independence, which include promoting use of domestic resources, among them coal. Romney also advocated increased drilling on public lands.

The candidates will focus on foreign policy in the third of their three debates, on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

In battleground state Ohio, Jewish voters favoring Obama handily, AJC poll shows


An American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish voters in Ohio, a battleground state, has the community favoring President Obama in similar numbers to polls elsewhere.

The survey released Wednesday by the AJC has Ohio's Jews favoring Obama 64 percent to 29 percent for Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate.

With a 6.4 percent margin of error, the numbers are commensurate with two other AJC polls last month that had Obama beating Romney 69 to 25 percent among Florida Jewish voters and 65 to 24 nationally.

As in those polls, the economy and health care topped voters' concerns.

The phone survey of 238 registered Jewish voters in Ohio was conducted Sept. 13-30 by QEV Analytics.

Democrats return to the economy after Jerusalem detour


It was the nuts-and-bolts convention that nearly broke down over the most ethereal of issues: Jerusalem and God.

But by its third and final night, the Democratic National Convention had gotten back on message: jobs, jobs, staying on course with getting the economy back on track, and — oh, yes — jobs.

It was a course correction after two days in which convention organizers — and, in particular, the campaign’s Jewish surrogates — scrambled first to explain how recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mentioning God got left out of the party platform, and then hustled to get them back in over the objections of some noisy and unhappy delegates.

The convention in Charlotte, N.C. — like its Republican counterpart, which last week nominated Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla. — was mostly about the economy.

Foreign policy barely surfaced at either convention, and social issues — while prevalent on the streets outside the Charlotte convention, where protesters on both sides of the abortion debate competed for sidewalk space — were addressed, but not paramount.

Vice President Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience over decades in the U.S. Senate was made a centerpiece of President Obama’s choice of VP four years ago, barely mentioned foreign policy in his speech Thursday night.

America’s posture overseas was left to two of Thursday’s convention speakers: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee who is now a widely touted possibility as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term, and Obama himself.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security must not waver, and neither must our pursuit of peace,” Obama said to applause during a short foreign policy aside in a speech that was otherwise dedicated to staying the course on his plans for economic recovery. “The Iranian government must face a world that stays united against its nuclear ambitions.

Democrats had scrambled to contain an embarrassing breakout after Republicans had seized on the removal of Jerusalem and God from the platform, grabbing headline space Democrats had hoped would contrast the enthusiasm in Charlotte with the relatively subdued Tampa convention.

The language was returned in a quickie session on Wednesday, but that also was not without its awkwardness: the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had to call for three voice votes before declaring a two-thirds majority. But those on the floor said the vote actually was much closer – and there were boos.

Those who objected ranged from Arab Americans who had praised the removal of the Jerusalem language as an acknowledgment of the claims both Palestinians and Israelis have on the city, to religion-state separatists who objected to the God language, to delegates who were outraged at what they saw as a rushed amendment process.

Jewish Democrats, who helped drive the return of the language, depicted the change as Obama’s initiative and a sign of his control over the party.

“The difference between our platform and the Republican platform is that President Obama knows that this is his platform and he wants it to reflect his personal view,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, told CNN after Robert Wexler, a member of the platform draft committee and a chief Jewish surrogate for the Obama campaign, told JTA that Obama directly intervened to make sure the platform was changed.

“President Obama personally believes that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said.

But that claim was at odds with repeated statements by Obama administration figures in recent months that Jerusalem remains an issue for final-status negotiations — itself the position of a succession of Republican and Democratic presidencies for decades.

Jewish Democrats acknowledged at the outset of the convention that they needed to address perceptions that Obama was distant from Israel before pivoting to the area where they feel Obama far outpaces Romney among Jewish voters — domestic policy.

Kerry, in his speech, cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in making the case for Obama’s Israel bona fides.

“Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran — and take nothing off the table,” Kerry said. “Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight: He said our two countries have 'exactly the same policy … Our security cooperation is unprecedented …' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day.”

Yet while the convention was under way, a story broke that underscored the ongoing tensions between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, a top U.S. lawmaker said, erupted in anger at the U.S. ambassador to Israel over what Israel's government regards as unclear signals from the United States on Iran.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, described for a Michigan radio station, WJR, an encounter he witnessed last month when he was visiting Israel. The interview was picked up Thursday by the Atlantic magazine.

“It was very, very clear the Israelis had lost their patience with the [Obama] administration,” Rogers said.

Rogers described Israeli frustration at what he depicted as the administration's failure to make clear to Israel or Iran whether and when it will use military force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

By Thursday, the convention’s message about the economy and the role of government in guaranteeing a social safety net was once again front and center — and among Jewish delegates, who crowded the floor sporting Hebrew Barack Obama buttons.

Cheers erupted when Carol Berman, a retiree from Ohio now living in West Palm Beach, Fla., lauded the president’s health care initiative.

“I'm one of the seniors who retired to this piece of heaven on Earth and I'm as happy as a clam,” Berman said. “It's not just the sunshine; it's Obamacare. I'm getting preventive care for free and my prescription drugs for less.”

Berman’s was the kind of “personal story” that Democrats had urged Jewish advocates to use when they made the case for Obama to the 5-10 percent of Jewish voters they estimate voted for Obama in 2008 and might be reconsidering this year. Wasserman Schultz also shared her personal experience with breast cancer in making the pitch for Obama's health care legislation.

The convention’s most sustained standing ovation was for Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head in January 2011. Giffords came to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, walking on her own with a cane and accompanied by a watchful Wasserman Schultz. The two women are close, having bonded as being the first Jewish women elected to Congress from their respective states.

The theme of collective responsibility informed the one rabbinical benediction of the convention, which closed Wednesday night’s events, by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe ad-libbed a Jerusalem reference in his speech, slightly tweaking the prepared remarks delivered to reporters before he spoke.

“You have taught us that we must count on one another, that our country is strong through community, and that the children of Israel — on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to that golden and capital city of Jerusalem — that those children of Israel did not walk through the wilderness alone,” Wolpe said.

A benediction for the Democratic National Convention


Ribono shel olam, Dear God–

We are grateful that our nation is founded on the highest principles of freedom and resourcefulness and creativity and ever renewed strength.  And we understand that those worthy ideals stand alongside the commitment to compassion, to goodness, our sacred covenant to care for those who are bereaved and bereft, who are frightened, who are hungry, who are bewildered and lost, who seek shelter from the cold.

As Your prophet taught us: shiftu yatom, rivu almanah — defend the orphan and fight on behalf of the widow.

We know that our lamp is lifted not only to illuminate our way but to serve as a beacon to others – that here, this land, is a place where the dreams of a weary world flourish and endure.

Ours is a holy charge: a single moment, a touch, a glance, a word, can change a life; our children look to us with aspirational eyes, with the hope that their world will be kinder, sweeter, smarter, than the one we have known. 

Each of these changes touches us all: for You have taught us that we must count on each other; that our country is strong through community, and that the Children of Israel on the way to that sanctified and cherished land, and ultimately to Your golden, capital city of Jerusalem, did not walk through the wilderness alone.

“Rachmana,” Merciful God, may we be guided by Your wisdom, and so become more understanding of the convictions of others; may our souls be enlarged by empathy and uplifted by leaders and thinkers and teachers who believe in strength of soul and wild, wonderful visions; so together, with Right and Left worshiping the same God, our nation, this strong, blessed nation, filled with spirit and called to noble cause, will become more passionate, more purposeful, more burnished and bright through the warmth of Your embrace and the extraordinary power (Dear God) of Your love.

David Wolpe, Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, delivered this benediction at the conclusion of the second day of the Demorcatic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. on September 5, 2012.

Thousands of French Jews check out aliyah


Some 5,000 French Jews participated in an aliyah fair in Paris.

The fair, organized and run by the Jewish Agency, took place Sunday as French voters went to the polls and elected Francois Hollande as their new president, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, considered the favored choice in the Jewish community.

“I cannot recall having seen such a massive number of people interested in aliyah since the days when lines of people stretched out of the Israeli embassy in Moscow,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who attended the fair. The annual fair usually attracts about 2,000 visitors, according to the Jewish Agency.

The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe, with some 500,000 members, according to the Jewish Agency.

The fair comes on the heels of an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and his two young sons and the daughter of the head of the school were killed.

On a visit Monday to Toulouse, Sharansky said the Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition will send counselors to the Ozar Hatorah school from Israel in the coming days, followed by a delegation of Israeli youth counselors. The professionals are charged with helping the students and their parents, as well as the teaching staff, return to their normal routine following the March attack.

“I came to Toulouse in order to strengthen the children and the community, but also to remind them that the Jewish Agency will strengthen their connection to Israel and assist those who are interested in making aliyah,” said Sharansky, though he added that aliyah should not be based solely on a tragedy like the one in Toulouse.

Santorum’s Southern sweep mars Romney’s front-runner status


Rick Santorum swept two Southern states in Republican primaries, complicating Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner and all but burying Newt Gingrich’s chance for the nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged from last place in polling as recently as December to become the conservative challenger to Romney, scored 33 percent of the vote in Mississippi and nearly 35 percent in Alabama. Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, finished second in both states, with 31 percent in MIssissippi and 29 percent in Alabama. Romney was third with 30 percent in Mississippi and 29 percent in Alabama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) came in a distant fourth in both races after barely campaigning in either state.

Romney, who during the campaign has tried to shuck his reputation as a moderate, had campaigned hard in a bid to prove he could win in conservative Southern states. The former Massachusetts governor is leading substantially in delegates, but his path to the nomination has been far from smooth as conservative candidates continue to mount substantive challenges.

Gingrich had suggested that if he failed to win in Mississippi and Alabama, his campaign was in trouble, predicated as it was on winning Southern states.

If Gingrich leaves the race, campaign watchers will look to see who his main backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to support. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, twice salvaged Gingrich’s campaign with huge cash infusions; Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since the 1990s, in part because they share hard-line pro-Israel positions.

Romney has the backing of much of the Jewish Republican establishment, having attracted the bulk of Jewish donors and advisers. His appeal to Jews is based partly on his moderation and ability during his governance of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 to appeal to liberals and independents.

Additionally he and his wife, Ann, have referred in talks to Jewish groups to their Mormon faith, likening themselves to Jewish Republicans who have pushed for prominence in a party that still draws much of its support from a Protestant base.

Both Santorum and Romney have battered President Obama for what they depict as his hostility to Israel and his fecklessness on dealing with Iran, and both say that they will repeal much of the heath care reform package passed by Obama.

Some of Santorum’s domestic policies, including statements suggesting that a “Jesus guy” is most suitable for the presidency, have alarmed some Jewish groups.

Is Obama’s J-Dar off? Probing, once again, the ‘kishkes question’


Does President Obama need a “Shalom Chaver” moment a la Bill Clinton?

More fraught back-and-forth between the organized Jewish community and the Obama administration again has brought to the fore the question of what the president feels in his gut toward Israel and the Jewish people.

The questions were prompted by the Obama administration’s late and qualified response to last week’s naming of a square for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist who helped mastermind a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israeli civilians, including a dozen children. The hurt feelings were sharpened by the massacre over the previous weekend of an Israeli couple and three of their children in their home in the Itamar settlement in the West Bank.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted the Mughrabi square naming at a Manhattan memorial service for the murdered Fogel family members from Itamar.

“If governments, even our own, do not stand out and shriek and condemn and take action when they see this kind of action by the Palestinian Authority and their representatives”—and the incitement continues despite repeated promises—then “we must make sure that our voices are heard,” Hoenlein said. “We have to demand accountability and that there will be consequences.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, asked what the president feels “in his soul”—a reference to disputed reports that in a meeting with Jewish leaders last month, Obama asked them to “search their souls” regarding their desire for peace.

“In light of what President Obama said to us at the White House and in light of this present episode, the ZOA asks a simple question: What does President Obama’s shocking, unbelievable and frightening refusal to condemn the honoring and glorifying of a major Jew-killer by [President Mahmoud] Abbas’ P.A., a day after an anti-Israel massacre, tell us about Obama’s true feelings about Jews and Israel?” Klein asked. “Mr. Obama, we respectfully ask you, sir, to ‘search your soul’ to evaluate your feelings and actions and policies toward the Jewish state of Israel.”

President Clinton set the high mark for connecting with Israelis and Jews in his 1995 eulogy at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral when he encapsulated worldwide Jewish grief in a simple Hebrew phrase: “Shalom chaver,” “Farewell friend.” The second President Bush also made clear his affection for the Jewish state, both supporters and detractors agree.

Speaking on the record, most Jewish community leaders dismiss talk about Obama’s “kishkes factor”—what he feels in his gut—as overly focused on the ephemera of emotions and beside the point: The lines of communication with the White House are open, they say, and the president and his staff are responsive to their overtures.

“I would say we have a good line of communication with them,” said Alan Solow, the Presidents Conference chairman and a fundraiser for Obama in 2008. “Our access is both appropriate and excellent. There’s not a problem of communication issue between the Jewish leadership and the White House.”

Solow would not address the kishkes factor, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

Speaking on background, however, a number of Jewish community figures—among them those who generally sympathize with the administration’s outlook on Israel—say Obama just doesn’t get it.

“His J-Dar is off,” said one dovish figure who recalled Obama’s first meeting with Jewish leaders in the summer of 2009, when he told them that previous administrations’ policy of not being public about policy disputes with Israel was unproductive.

“It may have been true, but it was not the right thing to say” to Jewish leaders, the official told JTA. “What it implies is that you’re trying to drive a wedge between them and the government of Israel—but you should know that rarely, rarely works because the organized Jewish community supports Israeli governments. He doesn’t get the emotional issue, and maybe even the structural issue.”

Obama’s missed opportunity was not visiting Israel after his June 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, a number of officials have said.

A conservative who has tried to make the case for this White House among like-minded friends and colleagues says Obama’s aloof personality is a problem.

“With Clinton, when he talked to you, it was like you were the most important person in the world,” the official said. “With Obama, it’s like he’s the most important person in the world.”

A prominent Democrat and a Clinton administration veteran said the problem was not confined to the Jews: This White House had made the rookie mistake of believing its resounding victory gave it a license to ignore special interests.

“It’s frustrating for every community, not just the Jewish community,” the Democrat said. “They have turned up their nose at constituency politics—labor, Hispanics, blacks, gays and lesbians also don’t get courted. They think they can go past affinity groups, and they can in some instances, but they still have to court the groups.”

White House officials tend to audibly sigh when the question arises. They especially chafe at the notion, raised by a number of Israeli and pro-Israeli officials, that there is no immediate “hotline” official in the White House—someone like Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration’s top Middle East staffer, who could be reached at a moment’s notice.

That person in this White House has been Dan Shapiro, who has Abrams’ job, and he has been responsive, according to friends of the White House.

One sympathetic pro-Israel official said that expecting microscopic attention to square namings by West Bank Palestinians was demanding too much of Shapiro.

“He’s just been dealing with that small problem of Libya,” the official commented dryly.

Obama announced recently that Shapiro would be his nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

White House officials say they have tried to be responsive and have engaged with Jewish leaders, and they say it’s a no-win situation: When they do not respond to a given event, like the Mughrabi square naming, they get into trouble, but when they do respond, the response is picked apart for inadequacies.

That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t-prickliness characterized Jewish reaction to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he went out of his way to condemn Holocaust denial among Arabs—and was slammed by some Jewish groups for seeming to draw moral equivalence with Palestinian suffering and for neglecting to mention the Jewish people’s biblical roots case for Israel.

The more recent episode, over the Mughrabi square, showed how an administration could stumble. The first response, days after the naming, came from relatively low-level officials and in response to a JTA inquiry, and said the administration was seeking “clarification” on an event that had been widely reported. The Palestinian Authority did not officially sponsor the event, nor did its officials attend it, but officials of Abbas’ Fatah Party were in attendance and Abbas did not reprimand them.

A day later, the State Department’s top spokesman, Mark Toner, explicitly condemned the naming and said the United States “urged” Abbas to address it.

Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, suggested such reactions were overwrought.

“Obama does not seem to have internalized yet, or does not seem cognizant yet of the fact that most American Jewish voters are progressive—they support his general agenda,” Nir said. “They typically don’t vote first and foremost on Israel and will probably overwhelmingly vote for him again.”

Obama: Gadhafi "needs to go" [VIDEO]


United States President Barack Obama said on Monday that the U.S. policy on Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi is that he “needs to go.”

Speaking at a news conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Obama said the military objective in Libya is to guard civilians from attacks by Gadhafi, not oust him from power.

Obama also added that the U.S. expects to transfer the lead military role in Libya to other allies in a matter of days.

Video courtesy of AP.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

So Far, So Good With Obama Administration


The U.S. Jewish community has taken great comfort with the performance of President Obama in his first 100 days in office. He already has begun to develop a deep and substantive relationship with the community by, among other things, hosting the first presidential Passover seder, creating strong outreach and communications, and working on key domestic and international issues of interest to American Jews.

Impressively, in less than 3 1/2 months, the Obama administration has moved forward with progressive policies of interest to our community relating to the economy, Israel, the Middle East, reproductive rights, renewable energy and stem cell research.

In addition, the Jewish community has applauded the president for including in his administration individuals who have long-standing close relationships with us. These include David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president; Hillary Rodham Clinton, secretary of state; Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff; George Mitchell, Middle East special envoy; Peter Orszag, director of Office Management and Budget; Dennis Ross, senior adviser to the secretary of state; Kathleen Sebelius, secretary-designate of Health and Human Services; Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council; and others. Several of them are members of our faith themselves.

The seder caused quite a buzz in our community. Not only was it the first presidential seder in our nation’s history, it has become symbolic of the intimate and deep relationship our president has with our community. (I must have received 50 photos of the seder from friends and family). More importantly, before the first matzah was cracked on the 77th day of Obama’s presidency, his administration already had engaged with the Jewish community on a frequent basis. This included many in-person meetings, conference calls and appointing leaders in the Jewish community to key advisory positions.

As a community, we are grateful that the president has spoken loudly against hate and intolerance. Last week, President Obama spoke at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony at the U.S. Capitol and called on Americans to “contemplate the obligations of the living” and fight against “those who insist the Holocaust never happened, who perpetrate every form of intolerance.”

Earlier this month, under his direction, the United States. boycotted the vehemently anti-Israel U.N. conference on racism known as Durban II.

As noted, the administration also should be commended for its efforts to communicate with and involve our community in major policy decisions. For example, the administration briefed Jewish leaders on regular high-level conference calls as the policy toward Durban II was formulated. Before then, the administration invited community leaders to participate in an hourlong conference call with Mitchell. The conversation was substantive, candid and meaningful. Those on the call were impressed both by Mitchell’s grasp of the issues and his attentiveness to the participants’ questions.

Being a leader in the Jewish community during the Obama administration means more than just being invited to Chanukah parties and events at the White House. In these first 100 days, the most senior members of his administration not only reached out to the Jewish community, they listened. Although Obama’s critics continue to search for ways to prove that he is anti-Israel, their message lacks substance and has little resonance within the wider Jewish community.

Obama’s foreign policy has immeasurably improved America’s image abroad. Both his foreign policy objectives and his domestic policy make Israel and the United States more secure. The president’s policies that move America toward renewable energy and off Middle East oil already have begun to be implemented. These policies and those whom Obama has appointed to serve in his administration subscribe to strategies that give the utmost importance to Israel’s peace and security.

On the domestic front, Obama has acted swiftly on critical issues and revised some of President George W. Bush’s damaging policies. On the economy, the president has shown bold leadership and smart policies to lead America’s economy out of this crisis that will create or save millions of American jobs, provide tax relief and invest in our long-term economic security. Obama also ensured that we will not fall behind other leading countries in an important area of research and development by lifting the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Exploring this burgeoning field will make sure that the United States is expanding the scientific frontier and providing Americans with the most advanced medical treatments.

As with stem cells, the president chose good policy over partisan politics when he struck down the infamous Global Gag rule that prohibited U.S. money from funding international family-planning clinics. These provided life-saving health services to women while providing counseling or referrals about abortion services. And finally, after many years of politicization at the FDA, Obama is putting science over blind ideology, including allowing Plan B, the morning-after pill, to be available without a prescription to women 17 and older.

We should not overstate the importance of Obama’s first 100 days; after all, there are more than 1,300 days left in the president’s first term. We are gratified, however, that the first 15 weeks of his presidency have made us proud and fulfilled his promise of much-needed change for our country.

Marc R. Stanley is chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council

Obama’s First 100 Days Offer Cause for Concern


As Americans examine the first 100 days of the Obama administration, it is important to make a candid assessment of the president’s actions so far. These first months are widely considered an indicator of the policies the president will pursue in the years to come. So what have we seen in the first 100 days of this presidency?As Iran continues to work feverishly to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States continues to pursue its policy of “engagement.”

North Korea launched a long-range missile. The next day, the administration announced drastic cuts in missile defense funding, including a halt to further deployment of Alaska-based interceptors designed to counter missiles from North Korea.

Our president, in a handshake seen around the world, embraced Hugo Chavez while Venezuelan Jews face virulent, government-sponsored harassment.

We have seen the president reverse the Bush administration’s policy of boycotting the U.N. Human Rights Council, the body that organized the Durban II conference against racism and that continuously focuses on condemning Israel and turning a blind eye to the genocide in Darfur and other human-rights abuses.

The Obama administration chose Charles “Chas” Freeman to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman is a long-standing apologist for the Saudi regime, a harsh and ideological critic of Israel, and a proud subscriber to the Walt/Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis. After a public outcry against Freeman taking such a sensitive security post, Freeman stepped down.

Many mainstream media outlets have reported on the growing “tension” between the Obama administration and the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Obama administration has asked Congress to relax sanctions against the terrorist group Hamas, so that if Hamas and Fatah ever come to share power in a Palestinian unity government, the United States can continue to send millions of dollars to the territories.

We have seen trillions and trillions of dollars allocated to bailouts and new government spending. The massive growth of government engendered by this spending, and the debt burden to our children and grandchildren, will haunt us for decades.

Our security agencies have been paralyzed by the double punch of released intelligence memos and vague threats to prosecute those who protected this country from harm in the previous administration.

Despite promises of “transparency” and “openness,” only one of the 11 bills signed by the president so far have been made available to the public for review before signing. (In fact, some of them weren’t actually reviewed by members of Congress before they were whisked up to the president’s desk.)

The president promised not to appoint lobbyists to his administration. He has appointed several, including former Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn to be deputy secretary of defense.

We have seen thousands of people across the country protest against the high taxes and unimaginable government spending proposed by this president. These “tea parties”—peaceful, truly grass-roots demonstrations of public opinion—were called “unhealthy” by senior White House adviser David Axelrod.

As Americans, we all want our president and our country to succeed in tough and challenging times. However, for those who care deeply about national security, the economy and other vital issues, these early days of the administration offer an opportunity to examine the president’s priorities and intentions that should not be missed.

While the president’s supporters will praise his actions in the first 100 days, many of the president’s actions have been cause for concern for American Jews. A balanced and honest review is in order.

Matt Brooks is the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Turning a page in the history books


Playing a frayed and faded ‘race card’


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is making a truly impressive run for the White House, and in doing so is being considered by many as America’s first mainstream “black” candidate — in other words a “black” candidate not running on a near-exclusive agenda of identity politics.

In fact, Obama’s soaring stump rhetoric often speaks about the nation needing to transcend racial divisions, arguing that “we are one nation” as he did in his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. In doing so Obama, the product of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, became the nation’s first “black” presidential candidate who was not appealing directly to the politics of racial identity.

However, it didn’t take long for this race-transcendent rhetoric to become mired in the same old tired politics of blame and guilt that have for too long been the un-natural state of America’s racial affairs. As the race has became increasingly heated between Obama and his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the gloves have come off and race has emerged as an issue that has dominated all discussions of the Democrats’ run for the White House.

The series of comments began back in December, when the chair of the Clinton campaign in Michigan speculated whether Obama has ever dealt drugs. Just prior to the New Hampshire vote, Bill Clinton referred to the increasingly successful Obama campaign as a “fairy tale.” Then Sen. Clinton told an audience of supporters that it took the work of then-president Lyndon Johnson to begin realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — which seemed to some sensitive ears to diminish the importance of the great civil rights leader. Candice Tolliver, a Obama spokesperson, said that “a cross section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of these statements.”

Predictably, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the Clintons, his old friends and allies, “Regrettably … have resorted to distasteful and condescending language….”

Democratic Rep. Jim Clayburn, a critical voice in black South Carolina politics, said he’d now consider endorsing Obama due to what he termed a lack of respect in the Clinton campaign’s approach to Obama.

Bill Clinton went on Al Sharpton’s radio show to explain his comments, and Sen. Clinton appeared on numerous news shows engaging in damage control. But the racial silliness seemed to have a momentum all its own. While campaigning with Sen. Clinton in South Carolina, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, again raised the specter of Obama’s drug use while a teenager. Clinton refused to repudiate the comments, even though she was standing on the stage as the over-the-top statements were made.

It is impossible to know, at this point, whether the Clintons, stung by the strength of the Obama campaign, decided to reach back for the race card as a device to weaken the cross-race appeal of Obama’s message. The Clintons’ electoral machine is known to “take no prisoners” and to do so with a fair amount of ruthlessness. That said, it is also a stretch to attempt to portray the Clintons as racially bigoted — having been devoted to liberal racial politics their entire lives.

On the other hand, why did it take Barack Obama more than a week to attempt to defuse the growing argument that somehow the Clintons are neo-racists? Only within the past few days has Obama spoken out, saying “Bill and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African American community and that they care about all Americans and that they want to see equal rights and justice in this country.”

So will this issue go away now? Most likely it will not. Once unloosed, the beast of racial identity politics will be tamed only with great difficulty.

Speculation about racial motivations regarding elections is nothing new. A prime example are the views of folks like Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor — a guy who could turn a visit from Santa Claus into a racial issue — who recently made featured appearances on various 24-hour news channels, peddling the view that the so-called “Bradley effect” defeated Obama in New Hampshire. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, was defeated in his race for governor, even though polls indicated he’d win. The continuing claim is that whites lied to pollsters, then went into the voting booth to vote for the “white” candidate, George Deukmejian.

This is, of course, all rank speculation, but the view has become enshrined as reality among those with transparent racial agendas. No one knows what was in the minds and hearts of California’s voters in that 1982 Gubernatorial race — just as race-conscious pundits like Dyson now speculate wildly that New Hampshire’s mostly white voters were mindful of race when they handed Hillary Clinton a narrow three-point win over Barack Obama.

But wouldn’t a more thoughtful analysis have led to the conclusion that Clinton had a more effective New Hampshire ground operation? Or what about the fact that many uncommitted voters waited until the last moment (nearly 40 percent made up their minds in the last three days prior to the election), with women and older voters perhaps influenced by Clinton’s “humanizing” emotional moment in front of television cameras?

Why are some racial “traditionalists” so distraught by what Obama’s electoral successes represent? I think the obvious willingness of white voters to disregard the candidate’s skin color is a direct challenge to the argument that racism dominates the nation’s social, political and economic life. Already, Obama’s highly credible run for the highest office in the land has caused the country’s professional racial complainers to scramble in order to put their spin on things.

It is obvious that if Obama were to win the Oval Office not all racism would be eliminated by this feat. However, I have not heard anyone making that claim. Racism and bigotry will perhaps always exist in some form. There will always be those idiots and fools who define others exclusively by their skin color, ethnicity or religion. But so what? At least 10 percent of the American people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive.