WASHINGTON (JTA) — A new survey shows President Obama struggling with American Jews — but not on Israel-related matters.
The American Jewish Committee poll of U.S. Jews found that Obama’s approval rating is at 57 percent, with 38 percent disapproving. That’s down from the stratospheric 79 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama enjoyed about a year ago, in May 2009. The AJC poll was conducted March 2-23 and surveyed 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents selected from a consumer mail panel.
Obama’s advantage among Jews versus the rest of the population appears to be eroding. The latest Gallup polling shows Obama with a national approval rating of 48, nine points below Jewish polling. Last May, general polling earned him 63 percent approval, 16 points below Jewish polling.
Despite the drop — and weeks of tensions with the Netanyahu government — Obama still polls solidly on foreign policy, with a steady majority backing his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the AJC poll.
It is on domestic issues that the president appears to be facing more unhappiness.
Jewish voters are statistically split on how Obama has handled health care reform, with 50 percent approving and 48 disapproving. On the economy he fares slightly better. Jewish voters who favor his policies stand at 55 percent, while 42 percent disapprove.
The last AJC poll on the views of American Jews, released last September, did not address domestic issues, so there’s no measure to assess any change in support on the specific issues of health and the economy. Indeed, this is the first poll in at least 10 years in which the AJC has attempted to assess views on the economy and health care. However, Jewish voters in solid majorities describe themselves as Democrats and as liberal to moderate in their views, and traditionally list the economy and health care as their two top concerns in the voting booth.
Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the relatively low score on domestic issues underscored what he said was a steady decline in Democratic support among Jewish voters.
"This indicates a serious erosion of support," he said. "It’s a huge drop. There’s no silver lining" for Democrats.
Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, countered that the poll did not account for Jewish voters who might be disappointed with
Obama from a more liberal perspective — for instance, over his dropping from the reform bill of the so-called public option, which would have allowed for government-run health care.
Additionally, much of the AJC polling took place before Obama’s come-from-behind victory on March 21, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed health care reform, Forman said. Since then, Democrats have said they see a turnaround in the president’s political fortunes. "The narrative was the president was in the tank," Forman said. "This was when it was thought his initiative was dead."
Obama fares strongly with Jews on homeland security, with 62 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving — a sign that Republican attempts to cast Obama as weak on protecting the nation have had little impact in the Jewish community.
He also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval. At that juncture, the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were kept at a low bubble and were confined to U.S. insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement, and the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to concede.
The latest questions, however, coincided almost exactly with the period when U.S. officials accused the Netanyahu government of "insulting" the United States by announcing a new building start in eastern Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, and when the president refused to make public gestures of friendship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent visit to Washington.
A question on Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear capability showed a statistical dead heat on the approval side between last September — 49 percent — and now, at 47 percent. However, disapproval ratings rose moderately, apparently borrowing from the "uncertain" column: Back in September 35 percent disapproved; now 42 percent give a thumbs down.
The marks compared favorably, however, with Bush administration figures. Bush scored 33 percent approval ratings on Iran in 2006, the most recent year that AJC asked the question.
Support for U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran to keep it from making a nuclear bomb appeared to drop slightly. Asked about a U.S. strike, 53 percent said they would support one, and 42 percent were opposed, as opposed to 56 percent and 36 percent last September. On an Israeli strike, 62 percent supported and 33 percent opposed, as opposed to 66 and 28 percent in September.
The only other question in the most recent survey directly addressing Obama’s foreign policy also showed strong support for the president: 62 percent of respondents agreed with Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This contrasts with the consistently negative Jewish assessments of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except in the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Approval of Obama’s foreign policies contrasts with increasing uneasiness in the Jewish establishment with the administration’s approach. Several influential pro-Israel organizations have spent months, to little avail, pleading with the administration to confine its disagreements to back rooms.
A handful of prominent Jewish backers of candidate Obama also appear to have had second thoughts. Most pointedly, in a New York Daily News column Monday, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and a supporter of Obama during the 2008 general election, said he was "weeping" because the president had "abandoned" Israel.
And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most influential member of the Senate’s Jewish caucus, on Sunday pointedly avoided answering a question on ABC’s "This Week" about whether he agreed with a Netanyahu confidante who said Obama was a "strategic disaster" for Israel.
Brooks predicted a tide of defections. "You’ll have a number of candidates" in areas with a strong Jewish presence "asking him not to campaign for them," he said.
David Harris, AJC’s executive director, cautioned that low approval ratings did not necessarily translate into electoral losses.
Brooks said that he would advise GOP candidates to hammer Democrats hard on foreign policy, particularly in tight races in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida, where Jewish voters trended less liberal than on the coasts. "If Republican candidates are smart, they will make Democratic candidates in these races answerable to whether they support Obama’s policies of pressuring Israel," the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition said.
Jewish Democrats are already preparing a response strategy of arguing that the relationship remains close on defense cooperation and other matters, despite heightened rhetoric on settlement differences.
Harris suggested that the polling showed that the American Jewish public would prefer to imagine a closeness rather than deal with tensions. Obama and Netanyahu scored similar solid majorities — 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively — on how they handled the relationship.
American Jews "don’t want to be forced to choose," Harris said. "They would rather say a blessing on both your houses than a pox on both your houses."
According to the survey, 64 percent of Jews think Israel should, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, be willing to remove at least some of the settlements in the West Bank. But 61 percent rejected the idea that Israel should be willing to "compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction."
The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the firm Synovate, formerly Market Facts.
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