President Barack Obama stood before the United Nations General Assembly last week, backed up Israel’s position on Palestinian statehood and said that the United States support for Israel was “unshakeable.”
He added: “We believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day.”
In the days before and after the president’s address, the press scurried about trying to take the temperature of American Jews, a group small in number but outsized for two reasons: its concentration in key states and the amount of money it contributes to political candidates.
On the day after the president’s talk, The New York Times weighed in with a four-part feature titled: “Jewish Votes, Some of Them in Play.” The article noted that “Jewish voters are driven by a broad range of concerns, but for some the security of Israel is dominant.”
Citing a Gallup Poll taken over the summer, the Times found that Jewish voters “are no more disillusioned than other Americans are with Mr. Obama.” Since the 2008 election, Obama’s approval rating among Jews has dropped at a rate similar to the drop-off among Americans as a whole. The poll found that 54 percent of Jewish voters approved of the job the president was doing, compared with 41 percent of American voters overall. That’s a 13-point advantage among Jews.
The Times backed up the statistics with three reports from the field — from Pennsylvania, Florida and California — that showed a waning of enthusiasm for the president but more confidence in him than in any of his potential Republican rivals.
A second poll came a few days after the president’s speech and this one had even worse news for the president. The poll, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, showed Obama’s approval rating tumbling to 45 percent among Jews, nine points lower than the Gallup numbers. The AJC poll, conducted by the market research firm Synovate, spoke to 800 Jewish adults between Sept. 6 and 21, which was the eve of Obama’s speech. (See story on the AJC poll on page 20.)
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, David Harris, the AJC executive director, said that Jewish voters were “grumpy” about a variety of factors: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and “the Iran problem.” He added: “But they’re grumpiest about the economy.”
Israel was also a factor. The AJC-commissioned poll showed that only 40 percent of Jewish respondents approved of the Obama administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. In the 2010 poll, 55 percent approved.
I asked Harris if the numbers would have been better for Obama if the poll were taken after — rather than before — the president’s speech at the United Nations. He answered: “Hard to say if the speech helped, as I have no data, but I think it’s fair to say it didn’t hurt.”
As for the 2012 election, Harris added: “Overall, I think Obama has potential reason for concern, depending, of course, on whom the Republicans select as their candidate.”
The Obama speech, which was followed by dramatic appeals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, was ringed by a flurry of press commentary that to a large extent depended on the writer’s point of view. In New York magazine, John Heilemann weighed in with a cover story with the headline “The First Jewish President” set against a picture of Obama (or someone who looked like Obama) wearing a white yarmulke. The headline continued: “The Truth? Barack Obama is the best friend Israel has right now.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Dan Senor wrote an opinion column titled “Why Obama is Losing the Jewish Vote.” The article recounts Obama’s flashpoints with Israel over the last two years and concludes with this damning assessment of the president: “Overall he has built the most consistently one-sided diplomatic record against Israel of any American president in generations.”
Between these two extremes — Obama as best friend or worst enemy — lie most of American Jewish opinion. If the past is any indication, Jews will stand by him in the next election. After all, Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since FDR was president. Obama carried nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote. If Obama is slipping, it is for a variety of reasons, and one must assume he has some popular initiatives up his sleeve before 2012. He’s doing poorly in the polls among Jews, but as David Paul Kuhn pointed out recently in The Atlantic, he’s doing poorly with voters in general. He wrote: “Obama doesn’t have a ‘Jewish problem’ — he has a people problem.”