If you go by the comments, letters to the editor and emails that come my way via the Jewish Week, you’d think President Obama is a sure bet to lose in 2012 a Jewish vote he won so overwhelmingly in 2008.
But wait: most of the angry anti-Obama comments I hear come from the same folks who were calling him a Muslim fifth columnist and an anti-Semite in 2008; their criticisms may be angrier than ever, but they don’t suggest any real change in his overall Jewish support.
But I’m also seeing pretty clear signs of something else: a Jewish left that feels badly let down by his presidency.
There’s a lot of anger about his escalation of an Afghanistan war that was going nowhere under former President George W. Bush – and seems to be on the same costly track with Obama at the helm. Jewish liberals are frustrated, like so many other Americans, with an economic recovery that doesn’t really seem much like a recovery, unless you’re a big bank.
Conservatives may call the health care reform plan he ultimately signed “socialism,” but many liberals see it as fatally tilted toward the big insurance companies. Likewise, many see his push for toughened financial regulation as too respectful of the forces that contributed so heavily to the recent economic meltdown.
Some are frustrated, too, with what seems like the administration’s withdrawal from active U.S. peacemaking in the Middle East, but I don’t hear this nearly as much as I hear complaints on the domestic side.
White House briefings in recent days have been enlivened with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ slams aimed at a “professional left” he said refuses to acknowledge Obama’s achievements in areas like health care reform and financial regulation. (Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., fast on his way to becoming the most controversial Jewish member of Congress, said this week that Gibbs should be fired and said “People I know have referred to him as ‘Bozo the Spokesman’ He’s not conveying the value of the president’s strategies or his plans or his programs. … He’s so far in over his head, he’d have to reach up to touch his shoes.")
So: will Jewish progressives protest by staying home this November? And will they sit out 2012?
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, addressing the question of progressive frustration in general, told me it’s hard to predict, but liberal frustration may, in fact, play a significant role.
“What people say they will do in August and what they actually do in November are two different things,” he cautioned. “ But for liberals to turn out in large numbers, they have to see your good news, some reason for hope. No one sees that yet. Real events before November 2 matter.”
That means real events on the economic front and in Afghanistan.
I’ve heard suggestions that progressive frustration with Obama could be offset by growing fears of a Republican Party that is seen as moving further rightward, pulled by an unpredictable Tea Party movement.
“Sure, the scarier the GOP candidate, the more likely liberals will vote—or logically, one would think so. But discouraged people need a lot of motivation. This may not be enough.”
What about 2012?
It’s way too early to risk predictions, but I’ll say this: if Americans are still dying in Afghanistan and if unemployment continues anywhere near current levels, and if the perception in liberal circles remains widespread that President Obama is eschewing traditional liberal positions on these issues, a lot of progressives – including Jewish ones – may stay home.
I don’t see a still-liberal Jewish electorate bolting to the GOP side of the partisan divide in large numbers; I do see a real danger to the Democrats that enough are frustrated that it will be hard to get them to vote and to fork over campaign contributions.
Ultimately, that could hurt Obama and the Democrats more than objections from the right about his Middle East policies. Here’s a news flash for you: there are a lot more Jewish liberals than Jewish conservatives.