As the midterm elections near, Jewish progressives, frustrated by what they see as President Barack Obama’s lack of leadership on a range of domestic issues — starting with the economy — may sit out the November congressional vote in large numbers.
The prospect of a backlash from Jewish liberals, which carries big political risks for the president, say observers, is his real “Jewish problem,” not the Jewish right’s criticism of his handling of the Israel issue.
“The White House keeps hearing that they have to worry about the Jews because of Israel,” said M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist and now one of the country’s top liberal bloggers. “I think they’re being misled. The people who are most upset about his Middle East policy weren’t going to vote for him, anyway.”
The surge of progressive activism that helped produce Obama’s overwhelming, 78 percent take of a still-liberal Jewish vote in 2008 has been battered by his detached leadership style and the compromises he has made on policy, Jewish liberals say.
The risks for the Democrats of Jewish progressives sitting on their hands come Election Day are huge, Rosenberg argued, and include diminished party activism and reduced campaign giving by Jewish liberals — both mainstays of the Democratic Party.
Some Jewish Democrats privately acknowledge their fears about liberal disenchantment but argue that when faced with real-world choices between Democratic candidates and the likely nominees of a Republican Party that is being driven rightward by the Tea Party movement, they will turn out in force for the Democrats.
Still, political scientists say that at least in 2010, with the House up for grabs and a chance the GOP could retake the Senate, liberal disenchantment with Obama could be a huge problem for the Democrats. And liberal Jewish disenchantment could be a big subset of that problem.
Polling tells an incomplete story.
A Gallup aggregated poll released last week showed Obama with a 61 percent job approval rating by Jewish voters. That’s a big drop from his 77 percent in January 2008 — but it’s 13 percent above the average for all voters, 18 percent above his standing with Protestants and “other Christians.”
Late last month, a Pew survey indicated that the proportion of Jews who identify as Republican or “lean” Republican is up significantly, to 33 percent. That finding was hailed by Jewish Republicans but dismissed by Jewish Democrats, who argued that Obama still remains more popular with Jews than with any other voting bloc except for African-Americans.
What’s missing from those numbers is data on how much of the drop since early 2009 stems from the president’s handling of the Israel issue — and how much is a function of liberal frustration based on domestic issues.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, a Jewish renewal outpost and a center of progressive Jewish activism on the East Coast.
In a Jewish Week interview, Rabbi Waskow was blunt.
“For myself and a number of folks I know, we are badly disappointed,” he said. “The polls tell about disaffection from Obama; people read them and assume the drop is because of right-wing or centrist opposition. But I see something else: a lot of this is coming from progressives who feel he has done far too little on the issues we care about.”
Those issues are the same ones roiling American politics in general, he said, including jobs and the feeling among many that the Obama administration has been too attuned to the interests of Wall Street, deaf to the concerns of Main Street — a fun-house mirror reflection of the concerns that are driving the burgeoning Tea Party movement.
Rabbi Waskow also criticized what he called the “pre-emptive surrender by the Obama administration” on issues like offshore drilling and a health care reform package that included “secret deals to exclude a public option, which angered many progressives.”
The results, he said, already include a significant drop in activism on behalf of the Democratic Party and hints of an ominous decline in campaign giving to the party.
“I get calls every day from [Jewish activists] who tell me they are giving money to some specific candidates, but no longer to the Democratic National Committee,” he said. “Frustration is running very high.”
Any drop in Democratic giving by frustrated Jewish liberals could have a big negative impact on the party, said Rosenberg, who argued that it is a misconception that most Jewish money is Israel-based.
Big liberal donors, many of them Jewish, are the backbone of Democratic campaign finance, he said — and they are more focused on “issues like choice, climate change, marriage equality and the economy than on Israel. And they’re the ones who are the most upset.”
Menachem Rosensaft, a New York lawyer, Holocaust activist and early Obama supporter, put a more positive spin on the Democratic dilemma.
Obama, he said, has “come through essentially on every count” on the Jewish progressive wish list.
But Obama “hasn’t sold himself well, or tried to market himself. Instead, he has just said, ‘These are my positions,’ and hasn’t tried to sugar-coat them,” Rosensaft said, adding that “it’s been a difficult year and a half; a lot of things have not fallen into place. And we have yet to see the results of some of his accomplishments.”
And he said many Jewish progressives are frustrated — “not so much with Obama himself, but because of the situations we face, and particularly the economy, haven’t improved.”
Doni Remba, president of the Jewish Alliance for Change — which supported Obama during the 2008 campaign — said “there is a real danger progressive Jews and other progressives will not go to the polls in November. I see a danger of apathy and resignation. They certainly won’t vote for Republicans — but I don’t see Jewish progressives mobilized to the extent we were mobilized in 2008.”
Progressives, including many in the Jewish community, are “evaluating the administration based on the soaring rhetoric of hope and change, which was salve for the wounds Americans were suffering from,” he said. “There’s no way the mucky realities of governing can live up to that kind of rhetoric. As the Chicago Tribune rightly predicted, Obama is governing as a centrist; centrism doesn’t tend to inspire, and it’s not always consistent with a Jewish community that remains strongly progressive.”
Remba said Obama’s “only Jewish problem is his problem in motivating progressives in general to support him despite their disappointment with his generally centrist policies.”
But with control of Congress hanging in the balance — along with a long list of issues Jewish progressives hold dear — the impact of that disenchantment could be significant, he said.
Generating voter turnout is a problem in all midterm congressional elections, but this year, with anti-Obama sentiment at epidemic levels, it represents “the Democrats’ biggest enemy,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Republicans are stoked for a huge participation rate because of their dislike of Obama, while Democrats are unenthusiastic, in good part because they don’t see results on the economy. A midterm election naturally has much lower turnout than a presidential one — so there’s the whole election in a nutshell.”
And disillusioned Jewish liberals, not angry pro-Israel activists, could be Obama’s biggest Jewish problem in 2010 and — if current trends continue — a political headache if he seeks re-election in 2012.
But University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald downplays the likelihood that disenchanted Jewish liberals will play much of a role in either election.
“I’m skeptical that Jewish liberals will stay home in large numbers,” he said.
Among the reasons he cited are “fear of the extreme right, including [Sarah] Palin and others, a recognition that there may be other Supreme Court seats open in the next two years and Jewish guilt.
“Like in 2008,” Wald said, “I suspect the Jewish vote may waver in September but will start to crystallize in October.”