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Obama has a people problem, not a Jewish problem

at 03:35 PM ET, 09/16/2011

Polling and election results suggest a rising Jewish rebellion against the president. But a closer look reveals that these voters are not behaving any differently from other segments of the electorate.

In the most recent Gallup polling, Obama’s disapproval rating with Jewish voters rose from 32 to 40 percent, and his approval rating sank from 60 to 55 percent.
President Obama speaks at AIPAC. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Viewed one way, these numbers demonstrate that Obama is still more popular with Jews than with the country at-large. Seen another they point to Obama having a serious problem with a loyal constituency.

Clearly, Republicans think its the latter. They point to the president’s controversial May speech on Mideast peace, in which he suggested that an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians should be based on 1967 boundary lines, as well as past rebukes of Israel from Obama.

Then came Tuesday’s special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in what by all rights is a solidly Democratic seat. Palestinian statehood became a wedge issue in this district, which has the highest percentage of Orthodox Jewish voters in the country.

But Obama’s position vis-a-vis Israel is not so clear cut. The administration is already planning to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution to recognize Palestinian statehood. Last week, the White House intervened to ensure personnel at the Israeli embassy in Egypt were evacuated safely after protesters attacked the compound — a move that won praise from American Jewish groups.

Even if Republicans successfully argue that Obama is anti-Israel, will it have an impact? Jews only make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. On the other hand, there are concentrations of Jews in a couple swing states.

Jews are about 2.3 percent of the population in Pennsylvania, 2.8 percent of the population in Nevada and 3.3 percent of the population in Florida, according to the North American Jewish Databank. Jews also tend to be older and more politically active than other voters, meaning their impact is greater than their numbers would suggest.

Republicans are trying to take advantage of what they see as a major Democratic vulnerability.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, running for president in 2012, just wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post saying that “unfortunate errors by the Obama administration have encouraged the Palestinians to take steps backward away from peace.”

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), always in for a good fight, is preparing a congressional resolution opposing a two-state solution in favor of a full takeover of the West Bank by Israel.

And some Democrats agree.

“I ... get in my district a lot of Jewish people dissatisfied with Obama’s policies; what they’ve perceived to be his lack of support for Israel,” New York Rep. Eliot Engel told the Post earlier this week.

Former Democratic New York City Mayor Ed Koch told voters in New York’s special House election to choose the Republican candidate to “send a message” to Obama. (Koch also backed President George W. Bush in 2004, so its not clear how much of a Democrat he really is these days.)

But despite these grumblings, Obama’s numbers with Jews have not changed significantly from prior to his May speech.

As with all Americans, Obama’s standing improved with Jews at the beginning of the year, trended downward from there, spiked in May with the death of Osama bin Laden and then tanked again as the economy dipped. Jewish voters, in other words, follow the general trend.

While there appears to be more volatility in Obama’s Jewish numbers, Gallup chalks that up largely to the smaller sample size. Gallup data suggests the unhappiness with Obama among Jewish voters is due largely to the economy, not Israel.

As Dan Klein wrote for Tablet Magazine last month, nearly every sitting president loses support from Jewish voters in his reelection bid. So Obama will probably win fewer Jewish voters in 2012 than the 78 percent he took in 2008, but that’s hardly unique and complicates easy analysis.

Jews who attend synagogue regularly tend to be more conservative and have always held Obama in lower esteem than other Jewish voters.

While the 9th district of New York, where Republican Bob Turner defeated Democrat David Weprin on Tuesday, is only about one-sixth Orthodox, that still makes it the most Orthodox district in the country. Many Turner voters interviewed about the race said it was actually Weprin’s support of same-sex marriage in New York State, not Obama’s policy on Israel, that energized them.

“The Orthodox community is growing faster than any other element of the Jewish community, and what New York’s District 9 proves is when sufficiently motivated they will come out to vote,” said David Pollock of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

So with the growing and more-conservative Orthodox community and Republicans determined to make Israel an issue, Obama might have to worry some about Jewish voters in 2012. But those concerns seem minor when compared to his problems in the rest of the electorate.

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