Obama Jewish Support Ebbs in Key Swing State Amid Economic Woes

Obama Jewish Support Ebbs in Key Swing State Amid Economic
President Barack Obama, right, walks with Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, following a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama’s support among Jewish voters, a bedrock Democratic constituency, is waning for the same reason he’s losing independents: the economy.

Rebecca Petterson, a Jewish homemaker from Pompano Beach, voted for Obama in 2008. Then she had three kids; medical bills came due; the global recession hit her husband’s export business; and Florida’s real estate market cratered.

“My house is worth half of what I paid for it,” said Petterson, 42, who pushed twin infants in a double-stroller while corralling her toddler outside a Whole Foods store in Boca Raton last week before the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Although Petterson offered a mixed review of Obama’s support for Israel, she said that’s “not my primary issue” as she considers whether to support his re-election. “All the things I thought mattered -- a woman’s right to choose -- are taking less precedence when I’m looking at the economic situation,” she said.

A Gallup Poll released Sept. 16 found Obama’s job approval at 54 percent among Jewish Americans, down from a high of 83 percent when he took office. Still, his support from Jewish Americans was higher than his overall job-approval rating of 41 percent.

White House Outreach

The White House is seeking to reassure Jewish voters by activating a broad network of surrogates, including Vice President Joe Biden. A five-paragraph Sept. 27 statement by Obama on the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays cited his support for Israel three times -- in three successive sentences. “The bond between our two nations is unshakable,” the president said.

Republicans are seizing on a Sept. 13 victory in a heavily Jewish, Democratic congressional district in New York as a sign of Obama’s weakness. In addition, the Republican presidential frontrunners, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, said the president is partly to blame for Palestinians’ decision to try to achieve statehood through the United Nations -- a move Obama opposed.

Perry said in a Sept. 20 speech that Obama’s pressure on Israel to compromise in peace talks was “naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous.” Romney said Obama had thrown “Israel under the bus and undermined its negotiating position.”

Biggest Swing State

Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls. Republicans don’t expect to win over the community outright in 2012. Instead, they want to win enough Jewish Democrats and independents to change the outcome in some swing states.

Florida is the biggest swing state with a large proportion of Jewish residents, 613,000, according to the 2010 North American Jewish Data Bank, produced by Jewish groups and the nonpartisan Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

According to the National Jewish Democratic Council, a 10 percent loss of the Jewish Democratic vote could shift the Democratic and Republican vote margins by 98,000 votes in Florida, 35,000 in Pennsylvania, 18,000 in Ohio and 8,500 in Nevada.

“Florida is the big prize,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Washington-based Republican Jewish Coalition. “In these really close elections, a swing in the Jewish vote can really make an impact and in some cases can be the difference between winning and losing.”

‘Uncertain Support’

Rabbi David Steinhardt of the B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, a synagogue where Obama held a town-hall meeting in 2008 to address concerns about his position on Israel, said there’s “a lot of support for him” in the Jewish community. “But it’s an uncertain support.”

Steinhardt, 58, has been holding weekly “open discussions” after services for those who want to talk about politics and the Torah. Obama’s economic and Middle East policies are regular topics, he said.

“I sense that what Obama tried to do in his early speeches, and certainly the speech in Cairo, was to present himself to the Arab world, to the Muslim world and to the Palestinians, as someone who heard their yearnings,” Steinhardt said. “And in so doing, many in the Jewish community felt neglected and fearful.” Since then, he said, most in his congregation have become convinced that “he does understand the essential need for Israel to have its security defended.”

David Finkelstein, 74, a member of the congregation who backed Obama in 2008 and a participant in Steinhardt’s talks, is among those rethinking his support after a string of White House actions.

Right to Exist

In Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, aimed at repairing U.S.- Muslim relations, the president defended Israel’s right to exist -- adding that Palestine’s right to exist can’t be denied either. The same year, Obama insisted Israel halt settlement construction in the West Bank. In May, Obama said Israel must acknowledge 1967 borders and mutually agreed land swaps in peace negotiations with Palestinians, comments he was later forced to clarify.

Finkelstein, an independent voter, said he’s weighing those remarks against Obama’s pledges of support of Israel. He’s keeping his options open, even though he’s wary that Republican candidates such as Romney and Perry are being “political.”

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish congresswoman from Florida, said Republicans are trying to raise questions about Obama’s commitment to Israel because they can’t appeal to most Jewish voters on social issues or environmental policy. “The economy is the most important issue for everybody right now,” she said.

‘Better Off’

Ned Siegel, a former ambassador to the Bahamas under President George W. Bush and former chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Florida, agreed that the economy is the prime issue -- and said it will drive Jewish voters away from Obama.

“Israel’s important, but there’s no doubt as we continue, and if we have a double-dip recession, the mandate is going to be on: ‘Are we better off than we were four years ago?’,” said Siegel, a Romney supporter.

A prime target for Siegel are such voters as Gary Caplan, an independent and a commercial real estate asset manager. Caplan said he and his wife, Brenda, voted for Obama in 2008 because “we thought he’d be good for the country and he had a good message -- and our kids wanted us to.”

Now, he’s “disillusioned,” he said. Although Caplan supported Obama’s stimulus spending, he said it didn’t spread enough money into the economy to help sufficiently. “We’re also not crazy about his stance on Israel,” Caplan said.

Businessperson Needed

The Caplans moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, last month from Boston, where they lived during Romney’s tenure as governor. Caplan said he’s considering supporting Romney. “He did all right in Massachusetts,” Caplan said. “He has a business sense, and America needs a businessperson.”

Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman and president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, said Obama can win back the Caplans and Finkelstein by explaining his full record.

Among the accomplishments he should tout is the 2009 authorized sale of bunker-buster bombs to Israel and support for U.S. funds for its Iron Dome missile defense system, he said. Obama should also take credit for pressuring Egyptian officials last month to protect Israelis trapped in their Cairo embassy by rioters, Wexler said.

Easing Concerns

Michael Adler, a Miami-based real estate executive who hosted an Obama fundraising event in September with Biden, said he’s heard concerns about the potential destabilization of the Middle East by the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy uprisings. Obama’s Sept. 21 UN speech opposing the Palestinian statehood bid seemed to “significantly” ease concerns, he said.

Sheri Hillman, 47, an executive recruiter from Delray Beach, said she will stand by Obama in 2012. Obama is “really trying, and I think he’s done a lot of good things,” she said. Hillman said Obama’s attempts to fix the economy are being stymied by Republicans and by Americans unwilling to “do their share.”

“I don’t get it,” she said of the notion that liberal-to-moderate Jews would abandon Obama, especially if the Republican nominee were a Christian conservative.

“The rapture really isn’t good for the Jews,” she said of Biblical prophecy behind some Christian support of Israel.

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