Obama fielded them all. With the press in the room, his statements were conventionally bromidal: “The most important message I have … is that even as we try to manage what is going to be a very difficult and challenging situation over the next twelve months, the next 24 months, the next decade, that one inviolable principle will be that the United States and Israel will always be stalwart allies and friends. That bond isn’t breakable.” Behind closed doors, his answers were more nuanced, but still designed to soothe—especially regarding his relations with Netanyahu. You can’t ask me to agree with everything the government of Israel is doing, Obama argued, since not everyone in Israel agrees with what the government is doing.
Obama won’t be alone in making this argument to Jewish donors. In addition to deploying Axelrod and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, his campaign has hired an official outreach director to try to fix its Jewish problem: Ira Forman, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Forman is known for an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish politics and a history in waging trench warfare against Republican Jewish groups. But none of that will prepare him for the job he is taking on. “A lot of what he’ll be doing is coaxing and persuading,” says a Jewish Obama megabundler. “A lot of people who raised a ton of money for the president last time are very short on enthusiasm for doing it again.”
The hiring of Forman is a tacit acknowledgment that the White House has badly handled the continual care and feeding required to keep major donors sweet—and all the more so in this case. The first White House liaison to the community was Susan Sher, who at the time was chief of staff to Michelle Obama. “Lovely woman, but she knew nothing about Israel,” says an Obama bundler, who some time ago attended a dinner with Sher and a clutch of A-list tribesmen: Mort Zuckerman, HBO co-chief Richard Plepler, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “It was kind of insulting to have this woman talking to these people who know this issue backward and forwards. And then there was no follow-up. Nothing.”
Both the nature and scale of Obama’s Jewish problem—at least where donors are concerned—are tough to pin down. A recent poll by the Republican firm McLaughlin & Associates found that among Jewish donors who gave to Obama in 2008, just 64 percent have already donated or plan to donate to him this time. Complicating the picture is the fact that Jewish buckrakers cite a variety of complaints with Obama: Some object to his rhetoric on Wall Street, some to his economic policies, and some to his handling of Israel. Then there’s the nature of fund-raising on behalf of an incumbent, which allows for much higher donations to the national party ($30,800) than to the campaign itself ($5,000). “Because you can raise so much from fewer people, it can mask a falloff in the number of donors,” says another bundler. “The president’s totals are healthy now, but you won’t know if you have a problem until later.”
Campaign coffers are one thing, albeit of huge importance for an incumbent who plans on filling them with roughly $1 billion. But the ballot box is quite another. And here it is easy enough to minimize the potential impact of Obama’s Jewish problem—or at least it was, until NY-9.
Not that Obama’s surrogates aren’t giving it the old college try. Within hours of Bob Turner’s victory over David Weprin, Wasserman Schultz—whose congressional district in South Florida is replete with Jews—was doling out the party line. “This is a special election that is purely reflective of who showed up to the polls and the makeup of the district,” she told the Washington Post, pointing in particular to its heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews. “There isn’t any comparison between districts like mine and New York 9.”
No doubt it is true that the district that was once the seat of Weiner, Chuck Schumer, and Geraldine Ferraro is unusual (and, as that list suggests, not just demographically). Not only is it roughly one-third Jewish, but of those Jews, roughly a third are indeed Orthodox. And Orthodox Jews are, to put it mildly, no one’s idea of a swing-voter group; instead they have become reliably Republican. (Among the Orthodox, a lowly 14 percent would reelect Obama.) Which would strongly suggest that the district is no coal mine, and its Jews are not canaries.
On the other hand, thanks in large part to the indefatigable Ed Koch, who endorsed Obama in 2008 but has now become one of his loudest (and loopiest) critics on Israel, the NY-9 election was framed to an unusual extent as a referendum not just on Obama but on his supposed betrayal of the chosen people. All over TV and the web was Koch, doing a squawky imitation of Romney, saying that the “Obama administration is willing to throw Israel under the bus in order to please the Muslim nations.” And, as state GOP chair Ed Cox pointed out to Politico’s Ben Smith, Koch’s appeal wasn’t to the Orthodox but to, in Smith’s paraphrase, “a still-more-sizable population of non-Orthodox Jews in old-line neighborhoods like Forest Hills.” Who, in fact, aren’t all that different from the older Jews in Wasserman Schultz’s district.