Foreign Affairs

Michael Tomasky on Obama’s Problem With Jewish Voters in November

The president’s support among Jewish voters is down. Can he turn things around by November?

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Amidst all the speculation (including my own) that Barack Obama should be able to dispatch Mitt Romney without too-strenuous exertions, and despite the president’s moving speech at the Holocaust Museum on Monday, we would do well to remind ourselves that Obama is having trouble with Jewish voters. A recent poll puts his support at middling levels, good enough to carry New York and California (obviously), but maybe not Florida. The poll result suggests one of the notable failures of his term: He moved into the White House clearly thinking that he could completely reset and reframe U.S.-Israeli relations, and even reset and reframe the very idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. This was and is an extremely worthy project, but it has proven to be a hell of a lot harder than he thought it would. And so he has—for the time being at least—given up on the project, now that he needs the votes.

The poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in early Aoril, found that 62 percent of 1,004 American Jews surveyed said that they would vote for Obama. That sounds like an agreeable enough figure until you recall that he got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Some news organizations, showing either really horrible memories or dreaded liberal bias, tried to soften the disparity by pointing out that Obama was about at this same level in support among Jews “at the same point during Obama’s first run.” But if you spend four seconds thinking back on the events of that campaign, you recall that April 2008 was the height of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair, and thus the one point that was likely to be Obama’s nadir with Jews.

Can he gain back 16 points by November? I think he can probably gain back half just because Romney will run too much to his base, which will alienate liberal and moderate Jews. They’ll say, “What the hell, Obama’s not so bad.” But getting those next eight points will be tough, maybe impossible, work, and this is where Obama’s very grand—and very dashed—hopes for a Middle East reset come into the picture.

Remember back to the administration’s early days. Obama talked pretty tough with Netanyahu. He had four fifths of the Jewish vote and thought he had capital. I reported on those early days for New York magazine, where I doing a little fill-in guest slot (and where I worked years ago). I talked with a broad range of experts who told me how surprised they were by how directly Obama went after Bibi on the settlements, and how personally Obama was invested in the Middle East process. This, remember, was back when Obama was at 60 percent in the polls. He thought he could strike quickly—if not get an outright peace deal, at that peak of his political strength, then at least get commitments from both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they were serious and ready to move. This was back when Obama still thought he really could change Washington through force of his personality.

And remember the broader context. For years you’ve had liberal Jews and others arguing—correctly, in my view, but in vain—that it was not “pro-Israel” for the United States to support every self-destructive move the Likud bloc wanted to make. The organization J Street rose up to try to challenge the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on this point. Important commentators in this field started saying it—my colleague Peter Beinart with deep passion, and even Jeffrey Goldberg at times. One sensed, whatever Obama said publicly, that he agreed with this general view privately, because that’s the intellectual milieu in which he operated. Maybe that toxic, whatever-Likud-wants dynamic really could be changed.

Well, I got some things right in that New York article, but I got one very important thing very wrong. I wrote that Congress, that always reliable friend of AIPAC, had changed its stripes. This is what I was told at the time. There was even a meeting where Bibi was taken aback, told by Democratic friends and sycophants in the House that things were different now and that he’d better play ball. But he didn’t. He went to his friends on the other side of the aisle, he stalled, he rebuffed, and he won. Different waters have passed under the bridge since; Obama has tried other resets. But basically the template was set in those first six months in office. Obama went for broke and came up empty.

And so, instead of Obama remaking the reality of the Middle East, that reality has remade him. I heard his speech at the AIPAC convention about six weeks ago. The interesting thing about the AIPAC convention (12,000 people in attendance!) was that you could tell by the applause that most of them—not overwhelmingly most, but most—were Democrats and Obama voters. More liberal, that is, than the AIPAC leadership overall. But he certainly didn’t say a word to exploit that cleavage, and predictably, it was the most implacable language, especially about Iran, that drew the most manly applause. And now—at the Holocaust Museum on Monday—he says, “I will always be there for Israel.” Not “America,” or even “my administration.” Simply, “I.”

I shouldn’t leave this subject without noting that Obama has been the subject of some slanderous lies in this arena. Emails circulated in 2008, for example, fabricating lines from Dreams of My Father in which he allegedly praised Muslims and disparaged Jews—things just made up out of whole cloth, undoubtedly because of his name and his race. He has faced unique and unfair suspicion from some quarters. It made the job of reset and reframe that much harder, because some mistrusted his motives. Whether Obama will pay a price this November, I don’t know. But as Beinart eloquently warns in The Crisis of Zionism, the price for this “pro-Israel” blindness will be paid most dearly by Israel. And I’d like to think that if Obama has a second term, he may still be able to change that.