Obama Doesn't Have a 'Jewish Problem' — He Has a People Problem

By David Paul Kuhn

The president will likely perform worse with Jews in 2012 than in 2008. But that's because he'll perform worse with everyone.

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The storyline is older than the modern state of Israel. Reporters portray American Jews as parochially fixated on Israel and ask: Will the issue help Republicans win support from the rare affluent group that votes Democratic?

The answer is no. There's a round of these articles every presidential cycle, and the answer is the same every time. Obama will likely perform worse with Jews in 2012 than in 2008. But that's because he'll likely perform worse with nearly everyone.

President Obama has more support today among Jews than Hispanics, youth, college graduates, Easterners, moderates and secular voters, according to Gallup data. Yet the polar storyline endures in major media outlets. New York Times front-page headline: "Seeing Ripple in Jewish Vote." CNN headline: "How can President Obama save the Jewish vote?" Politico headline: "Obama slips with Jews." And that was only on Thursday.

Obama has merely slipped onto a familiar floor. His support among Americans is at a low-point. Thus Jewish support has declined as well. Yet the trend is not new. Gallup tracked that same floor in Jewish support in July, August and November 2010.

This Jewish news is therefore old news. Fifty-four percent of Jews currently approve of the president's job performance; 40 percent disapprove. What about other core Democratic blocs? Forty-seven percent of Hispanics approve of Obama. Half of voters under age 30 hold Obama in a positive light. Obama has lost support at roughly the same pace among myriad blocs that constitute the Democratic base, with the exception of blacks, since his first weeks in office.

A recent special election spurred the opposite storyline. On Tuesday, a Republican won New York's Ninth Congressional District for the first time in decades. It spans Queens and Brooklyn. A third to perhaps 40 percent of the district's electorate was Jewish. Yet the district's Jews skew heavily towards Orthodox and Russian Jews. This is the sliver of the Jewish vote that leans conservative. American moderates and conservatives have moved rightward in the Obama years -- and the same is likely true of moderate and conservative Jews.

Don't mistake the outliers for the tribe. Even a majority of religiously conservative Jews voted for Democratic House candidates in the 2010 election. Overall, in that historically awful Democratic year, two-thirds of Jews still backed Democrats in the House elections, according to polling by Jim Gerstein.

In recent decades, only blacks have proven a more dependable bloc of the Democratic base. Yet we pay attention to the Jewish vote, above all, because Jews contribute an outsized share of financial support to political campaigns. Indeed, the GOP has long sought this fundraising white whale.

Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since before FDR was president. Obama won nearly eight in 10. Two-thirds of Jews voted Democratic even in the GOP landslide years of 1972 and 1984. Ronald Reagan proved that a Republican could win segments of the Jewish vote. But that was also true with the Democratic base generally -- hence the Reagan Democrats. Reagan's exception reiterates the rule.

Jews tend to vote like other core Democratic blocs. American Jews are about twice as likely to be liberals as the electorate overall. A majority of Jews identified as Democratic in 2008. That year, the media again obsessed over Obama's supposed Jewish problem. Yet Obama's rise in support among Jews during the campaign loosely tracked his rise in support among other blue blocs.

In lectures, Democratic strategist James Carville sometimes asks who are the group of Americans who do not vote in their economic interest? Students invariably say some version of Joe Six-Pack. Carville answers, Jews. Faces pensively nod.

Buddhists are the only religious group who have a larger share of liberals than Jews, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew has found that Jews supported abortion rights and believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" more than any other religious group.

A few years ago, there was a debate within the chattering class over why Jews are staunch Democrats. One answer is the unusual prevalence of social issues in American politics. Jews also have a tradition of identifying with the minority and emphasizing social justice. A critical third factor for American Jews is Israel.

But American Jews don't vote on Israel. A majority of Jews, like Americans overall, said the economy was their top issue, according to two polls by Gerstein in 2010. Israel ranked near the bottom. Only about a tenth of Jews named Israel as their top issue. That does not mean Jews adore Obama's Middle East policy. Gerstein found that seven in 10 Jews agree with Obama's Israel policies but half of them disagreed with his "execution."

But the ties that bind remain far stronger than those that fray. There is a relative consensus, compared to Western Europe, among the two-major U.S. parties on Israel. Obama has had his share of controversial rhetoric and gestures, from the Israeli perspective. But the Obama administration is currently fighting a backroom battle, against great odds, to keep the United Nations from upending the peace process and declaring Palestine a state. The old alliance endures.

Americans want it that way. About six in 10 Americans said in 2010 they were more sympathetic to the Israelis than Palestinians. It roughly matched the largest share in more than two decades of Gallup polling. In 2005, Gallup found that 52 percent of Americans said the same. By comparison, only about a quarter of the British agreed.

The anti-Israel fervor of the European left is found only on the fringes of the American left. A decade ago, the British liberal Labor Party sought to win back Jews. A Labor advocate told a reporter that British Prime Minister Tony Blair "has attacked the anti-Israelism that had existed in the Labor Party."

The relative absence of that "anti-Israelism" stateside explains why most U.S. Jews do not decide their vote on the Israeli issue. The president's approval lingers at historic lows. He does not have a Jewish problem. Obama has an American problem.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/09/obama-doesnt-have-a-jewish-problem-he-has-a-people-problem/245250/