Amidst all the speculation (including my own) that Barack Obama should be able to dispatch Mitt Romney without too-strenuous exertions, and despite the president’s moving speech at the Holocaust Museum on Monday, we would do well to remind ourselves that Obama is having trouble with Jewish voters. A recent poll puts his support at middling levels, good enough to carry New York and California (obviously), but maybe not Florida. The poll result suggests one of the notable failures of his term: He moved into the White House clearly thinking that he could completely reset and reframe U.S.-Israeli relations, and even reset and reframe the very idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. This was and is an extremely worthy project, but it has proven to be a hell of a lot harder than he thought it would. And so he has—for the time being at least—given up on the project, now that he needs the votes.
The poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in early April, found that 62 percent of 1,004 American Jews surveyed said that they would vote for Obama. That sounds like an agreeable enough figure until you recall that he got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Some news organizations, showing either really horrible memories or dreaded liberal bias, tried to soften the disparity by pointing out that Obama was about at this same level in support among Jews “at the same point during Obama’s first run.” But if you spend four seconds thinking back on the events of that campaign, you recall that April 2008 was the height of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair, and thus the one point that was likely to be Obama’s nadir with Jews.
Can he gain back 16 points by November? I think he can probably gain back half just because Romney will run too much to his base, which will alienate liberal and moderate Jews. They’ll say, “What the hell, Obama’s not so bad.” But getting those next eight points will be tough, maybe impossible, work, and this is where Obama’s very grand—and very dashed—hopes for a Middle East reset come into the picture.
Remember back to the administration’s early days. Obama talked pretty tough with Netanyahu. He had four fifths of the Jewish vote and thought he had capital. I reported on those early days for New York magazine, where I doing a little fill-in guest slot (and where I worked years ago). I talked with a broad range of experts who told me how surprised they were by how directly Obama went after Bibi on the settlements, and how personally Obama was invested in the Middle East process. This, remember, was back when Obama was at 60 percent in the polls. He thought he could strike quickly—if not get an outright peace deal, at that peak of his political strength, then at least get commitments from both the Israelis and the Palestinians that they were serious and ready to move. This was back when Obama still thought he really could change Washington through force of his personality.
Newsweek/Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.