September 20, 2019

Why Jews still back Obama

This entire week, people kept sending me emails with this screaming subject line: “OBAMA MULLING SANCTIONS ON ISRAEL.VERIFICATION ON GOOGLE.” 

Neither turned out to be true: Obama is not mulling sanctions, and Google doesn’t verify the fact (or any fact, for that matter). In fact, Google links to stories that cite a single Haaretz report saying the Obama administration is upset about Israeli plans to continue settlement in East Jerusalem. That is not a secret, and it is a concern shared by previous administrations of both parties. But some right-wing journalist decided to substitute the word “concern” for “sanctions.” And an army of forwarders took it from there, stoking the anti-Obama flames among Israel supporters.

This has been going on since the 2008 presidential race, and I predict it will never end, not even if Obama stands up in Jerusalem and declares his unwavering support for a secure Israel, which he did; not even if he promotes unprecedented levels of high-level security cooperation between America and Israel, which he did; and not even if he stands before the Arab world and demands the recognition of Israeli rights, which he did. 

And here’s what’s truly amazing: The scare tactic is not working.

In the midst of all the coverage of the Republican sweep of the midterm elections, one astonishing fact has been overlooked: The Jewish vote remained heavily pro-Democrat.

Even more noticeable, while President Barack Obama’s approval rating has been in free fall, 57 percent  of Jewish voters still approve of his performance, and 69 percent voted Democratic.  

These numbers come from an exit poll of 800 Jewish voters conducted by the liberal advocacy group J Street immediately following the November elections.  A similar poll conducted by Republican Jewish Coalition showed slightly less enthusiasm for the Democrats — about 4 percentage points less — but that number is within the margin of error. 

Obama’s approval rating among Jewish voters, according to J Street, is 15 points higher than among the general population. 

On the one hand, this reflects a slide in the president’s popularity.  A year ago, a Pew Research Center survey found 65 percent of Jewish voters approved of the president’s performance. And in 2012, he won 80 percent of the Jewish vote.  Why the slide?   

In foreign policy, the president’s approach to Syria, ISIS and the turmoil in the Middle East is faltering, as if he’s been calling the shots while focused on the Golf Channel.   

Stylistically, he has come across as withdrawn, cerebral and defensive. Obama seems to throw a punch, then retreat to his corner. People who elected him to stand up to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner feel he’s not 110 percent in the fight. At a time when America needs to be having a serious and sustained set of conversations and actions about race, Obama seems more follower than leader.  In other words, the disappointment with Obama among Jews isn’t because he’s too radical, but too removed.

But the poll results still show more upside than downside at a time when the rest of America has all but written him off.

That just can’t be explained away as traditional Jewish-American liberalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). President Jimmy Carter only got 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, running against Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson. History shows it takes more than a big “D” after your name to win Jewish support.

In Obama’s case, his continued popularity with Jewish voters rests on several accomplishments: Obamacare, which a 2012 American Jewish Committee survey found popular with Jews (if not all Jewish doctors); the economy, which you might remember was barely breathing before Obama and his team resuscitated it and rescued the automobile industry; and his approach to immigration reform and the environment. Poll after poll shows these rank high among Jewish voters.

What about Israel? Jews don’t blame Obama for what is widely seen as frosty relations between the administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Only 21 percent in a recent poll said Netanyahu’s actions have helped American-Israeli relations. 

And there is also this: Support for Obama is informed by a deep distrust of the forces arrayed against him. Mainstream, economically conservative but socially liberal Republican voices with thoughtful foreign policy solutions who could credibly counter Obama have taken a back seat in their party to more hysterical, radically right voices. In the back of their minds, Jewish voters have to be wondering, “If not him, then who?

Since those midterm exit polls were taken, Obama has taken unilateral steps that have proven even more popular with liberal voters. He’s been a bit feistier, as his appearance on “The Colbert Report” this week showed. And he will get well-deserved credit for ending, early on, the CIA interrogation tactics that this week’s Senate report found brutal and ineffective. Will he leave office as beloved by Jewish voters as Bill Clinton? Maybe not. But there’s still a lot he may yet do to become even more popular, like give a rousing endorsement to a Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren ticket for 2016. And remind Americans of how far we’ve come since 2008.

Other voters already may have forgotten about these achievements, but Jews, who this week mark events from 167 B.C.E., have memories that can stretch back at least six years. 

Happy Chanukah.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.