Obama’s inside track on Israel

The Jewish Chronicle 3/30/12

In Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart tracks, the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, whom he terms the first “Jewish President”. It’s not a reference to Obama being a crypto-Jew, but rather that the intellectual and moral milieu within which Obama made his meteoric rise was entirely Jewish.

Beinart was not the first to use the phrase, – it’s actually a quote from an Obama fundraiser in 2008. It highlights the remarkable comfort that the President has when speaking to Jewish audiences about Judaism. One only needs to read his speech to the Reform Biennial – the quotes about his daughters attending barmitzvahs, the quotes from the weekly Torah portion, the ease with which he says Hebrew phrases – to see that this is someone with a real affinity and connection.

Jeffrey Goldberg, unofficial dean of the Jewish press corps, confirms these feelings. After being granted an interview with the President on the eve his Aipac speech, Goldberg gave Obama the New American Haggadah to which he, Goldberg, had contributed. The president who hosts a White House Seder, quipped: “Does this mean I can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?” The Maxwell House Haggadah is given for free in the US when you buy a jar of Kosher for Passover coffee.

This level of immersion in the day-to-day life of American Jewry is far removed from political pandering and evangelical philo-semitism. Obama truly gets the Judaism of mainstream America, to such an extent that he can hock with the best of them. It is this comfort with Jewish America that explains, in part at least, the President’s much commented-on relationship with Israel.

They mean he shows the wrong sort of affinity

Whether it is the mismatch of a Likud government in Israel and a Democratic administration in DC, or the current toxic hyper-partisanship of modern US politics, Israel is now an electoral issue. Presidential candidates looking for the advantage in swing constituencies like Florida have latched on to it. An attempt to narrow the definition of “Pro-Israel” seeks to limit the supporters of Israel to those who support the policies of the current Israeli government.

The discussions remind me of our own community discussions on public criticism of the policies of Israel. Obama’s speeches are reminiscent of the discussions at Shabbat tables across the Jewish World. People who claim that the President lacks affinity for the Jewish people and the state of Israel misrepresent themselves. What they actually mean is that he shows the wrong sort of affinity.

As the leader of Israel’s most important strategic ally, Obama feels like he has the right to comment on what Israel does. The democratically elected government of Israel can do as it sees fit, but it does not automatically get the current level of American support based on its democratic nature alone.

Nothing Obama says or does cannot be heard in any Jewish community discussion about Israel anywhere. It would not surprise me if we learn one day that his opinions were formed at various Shabbat tables in Chicago. The discomfort of many of Obama’s Jewish political opponents is that it is not a lack of knowledge, or hatred, that is behind his stance on Israel, but merely a difference of opinion about what needs to be done.

The first Jewish President is feeling the effects of our internal community broiges. The recriminations are always more bitter within a closely knit community than with those with whom you have no affinity. The anger that many are feeling towards Obama on Israel is perhaps just a stand-in for how many in our community feel about each other.


Winning without bouncing

Progress 7/3/2012

As the dust settles from Super Tuesday, there was a clear delegate winner on the night. Mitt Romney took the lines share of delegates on offer with five clear victories and a single point win in Ohio. He now stands 200 delegates above his nearest rival, Rick Santorum. Though there are still delegate-rich races to come, with the proportional allocation that most states now use, Romney looks to go into the nominating conference with the biggest head of steam, though perhaps without the 1,144 target he needs to lock it up. Super delegates, as in 2008 will soon be under a spotlight and could make the difference.

If this primary was only about delegate numbers last night should have left no one in doubt that Romney is on course to be the GOP nominee. Yet with Santorum winning more conservative states and robbing Romney of a big win in Ohio, a key national bellwether state, the race looks to continue ever onwards. Romney again failed to capture the conservative or evangelist vote, did poorly with blue-collar workers, and benefited from the disorganisation of the other campaigns. The inability to work through the ballot access system in Virginia left only a Romney v Paul ticket in that state, a blessing for the Romney camp on a night that they needed to win across the map.

Ron Paul for all the hype could not muster a win anywhere, losing by over 10 points to Santorum in North Dakota, a state that his strategy was meant to work. Newt Gingrich won his home state, Georgia, and won big taking, a huge swath of delegates from the largest contest of the evening.

The Republican primary system in its current form was designed by former RNC chair Michael Steele to make sure the party activists had a voice in the nomination and to try and build up momentum to whoever was going to be the GOP standard bearer. While the primary system is testing the mettle of the various contenders it is also creating the worrisome phenomenon (if you are Republican) of winning without bouncing. Rather then propel Romney’s numbers onward nationally, each win is seen as a disappointment for what should have been, with this field, a coronation.

Over the past six months Romney’s ratings have plummeted nationally, with his unfavorables 16 points higher than his favorables among independents. In every primary one appeals to the base and the balancing act is not to alienate the centre in the process. Not only has Romney not been rewarded with his conservatism by the base, he has also taken a large hit with the national middle. His muddled silence during the current war on contraception, especially during the ongoing Rush Limbaugh scandal, is killing him with mainstream America.

Meanwhile, quietly and effectively the Obama for America team is rebuilding the national organising machine that served them so well in 2008. The National Journal this week covered the fact that while Romney was the only GOP candidate to have a field operation in Virginia (an office in Richmond), Barack Obama already has dozens of events taking place, has run spring training for activists and has groups across the states phone banking. Across the map you can find hundreds of Obama events taking place every day. The campaign is now looking for data crunchers and computer modellers to build the electoral map, state by state.

The rip-and-run nature of the GOP contest is leaving whole states without field operations of any calibre. Obama won 2008 by building a field network the likes of which had never been seen before. This started even before the first votes were cast in Iowa. The GOP’s navel-gazing has caused them to lose sight of the political reality of their opponent. For all the straw men they put up on the stump speech, the eventual GOP nominee is going to face a democratic incumbent with thousands of paid field staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers in every state of the union.

A long, drawn-out primary may test a candidate, but if momentum is not built in victory the process merely is a drain on resources and political capital – something that the Obama campaign is banking on.

More than nicknames needed

Progress 27/2/12

Though great nicknames abound, the GOP field has failed to ignite any enthusiasm

The twentieth GOP debate this week attempted to give the voters a lasting impression of the candidates. Though their positions were well rehearsed and their talking points recycled, CNN decided to continue the infotainment with a new round of nicknames, these ones the most outlandish of the season.  Here was Mitt ‘the long distance runner’ Romney, Newt ‘the constant challenger’ Gingrich, Rick ‘the late contender’ Santorum and my personal favorite, Ron ‘the delegate hunter’ Paul.

CNN has taken some ribbing for its ridiculously overproduced introductions but it points to the power that these TV debates have had in this forever-changing field. Now down to four contenders the debate cycles have been seen as the major movers of momentum alongside pocket billionaire money bombs in media markets. The GOP field has felt like a reality show, with contestants being voted out week by week.

The turbulent path that has so far been this nomination process demonstrates the inability of any of the field to truly motivate the GOP base, and has further alienated the independents that are necessary for victory.  In a period of such uncertainty within the American national psyche now was a golden opportunity for a ‘change’ message.

There are still some vain hopes that a saviour will be found in the wings, especially as delegate rich states such as California, New York and Texas will not vote for some weeks, yet the issues of ballot access (needing 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot in some states) make the hurdle near impossible at this late stage.

The Punch and Judy show that has so far been the GOP nomination contest has managed to boo a serving gay solider in Iraq and bring access to contraceptives to the forefront of the national debate. When independents will decide the outcome of this election, charging to the social extremes is not a winning strategy.

The move to the social space is partly due to the upturn in the US economy. Barack ‘the president’ Obama has managed to get unemployment to start trending downwards and the Dow is up to pre-crash highs. Yet with the upturn in the economy the president is still to see the significant bump in the polls to put him anywhere in the ‘safe territory’ in this election.

The long nomination battle provides benefits for both parties, however. For the Democrats, seeing their opponents at war with each other allows them to get on with running the country while the GOP flounder. Whoever triumphs will have had severely depleted their resources.  Yet for the GOP, the fight allows them to stay in the national spotlight and give brand recognition to whoever the candidate is. This nomination fight will harden their eventual nominee for the main event and limit the amount of ‘got you’ moments that the president’s team can dig up.

Obama’s best hope of victory

Progress 26/10/11

One of the most remarkable things about the 2008 presidential election was the amount of young people who voted. Young voter turnout was at 53 per cent, meaning that 23 million 18-29-year-olds voted in that election. There were more young voters in 2008 than seniors voting.

For Obama this was particularly important as, although he lost the senior vote 53-47, he won the young vote 66-33. By broadening the voter base, Obama won his victory and energised a generation.

The challenge for 2012 is to create the same energy and turn out in that demographic base and make sure that they vote Democrat. With student debt piling up and no jobs on the horizon, the past few years has not given those young people looking for substantial change much to go on.

There was one policy, however, that had a major impact on the young electorate. Though the Republicans succeeded in pushing the majority of Obamacare’s implementation until 2014, the president did win in making sure that young adults can stay on their parents’ healthcare policies until they are 26. This is huge – health insurance is a massive cost and if one cannot find a job after leaving school, they can still be safe and secure in the knowledge that they have a buffer when it comes to their health for a little while longer.

While the president’s re-election campaign will, I hope, stress this point to every young voter, they also need to find policies that will motivate the student base once more to become activists for the campaign and get out the vote in their age bracket. If they fail to do this, Obama’s campaign is in serious trouble.

This might be the motivation behind the President’s Executive Order today to help students consolidate their federal student loan debt and max out repayments at 10 per cent of discretionary income.  Unless the Republicans nominate someone who terrifies the majority of the electorate outside their base, which is looking less likely, Obama needs to keep doling out the carrots for the young voting base.

Twenty years ago, pollsters and political strategists would tell you that victory lay in focusing on the old and ignoring the young. 2008 demonstrated that when motivated, the youth vote can even trump that of seniors. So alongside the challenges to social security and Medicare, expect more policy initiatives that speak to the younger voter crowd. They care more about their future than most have expected, and substance will appeal to them more than FourSquare and Twitter.


Pivot to Jobs

Progress 13/9/11

With Labor Day over, the race for the White House in 2012 has kicked off and at the top of everyone’s agendas are jobs. The August report card for employment was awful with not a single job created in the entire month. Currently there are 14 million unemployed persons in the USA – 9.1 per cent of the work force.

With these figures it is understandable that the president is pivoting to jobs, and his speech to Congress on 8 September, on the subject. His ‘American Jobs Act’, will cost $447 billion dollars to implement and includes tax cuts, infrastructure building and the extension of unemployment insurance, to make sure that those long-term unemployed individuals do not lose their entitlements while looking for work.

Long-term unemployment is termed as those who are out of work for over 27 weeks. Currently six million people are deemed long term unemployed by the statistics that make up 42.9 per cent of the total unemployment figure.

Ripples from the financial crisis of 2008 can still be felt in these figures and those who have not recovered from them face an uphill battle to find gainful employment. Alongside the crushing confidence blow that it is to be constantly turned down, the expense incurred in keeping up one’s appearances and travelling to multiple locations, employers have been discriminating against those who have been out of employment for over six months.

The New York Times discovered that many employers are making it a prerequisite that the candidate currently be in employment or have left within the previous six months. While employment lawyers cannot see a legal case against this stipulation, the New Jersey state legislature has already passed a law banning businesses from discriminating against the long-term unemployed, with New York and Michigan mulling over similar options.

As the bill faces this divided Congress it seems the prevailing view that elements of the Jobs Act will be stripped out and passed with little fuss while others will be stuck in partisan gridlock. Long-term unemployment is a social ill that equally upsets both sides of the house. America’s work ethic is imprinted in its DNA; nowhere has Max Weber’s sociological observations on the spiritual good of earning capital been more aptly applied.

In the UK we are unfortunately all too familiar with the sociological problems that come from long-term unemployment. There are those in our own society who have never had a job, nor have their parents. If the statistics are correct, neither will their children.

America is pivoting to jobs and the country will watch to see if Congress can do anything that will help the society out of the economic mess it finds itself in.