Analysis: The American election

America’s President-elect engineered a remarkable rise in his popularity among Jews with assurances on Iran and Israel.

By Shmuel Rosner, November 6, 2008

Six months ago, in the Pennsylvanian Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama hands down for the Jewish vote by roughly a two-to-one margin.

This week, apart from the Orthodox community, it was hard to find a Jewish Pennsylvanian not voting for Obama. And early exit polls showed that he attracted the same percentage of Jewish voters as John Kerry in 2004, if not more.

If Jewish Americans were initially worried about Obama's policy on Israel, about his advisers, about his intention to talk to Iran, then Obama was smart enough to charm them out of their fears and neutralise the Israel question by making clear that he would be a friend to Israel. This is what many Jewish voters needed to hear. All McCain could do was point to policy differences. But as most voters are not policy wonks, and since that is a much more nuanced argument, winning, for McCain, became harder.

Obama did it by talking to them, by calming them, by using surrogates such as former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Congressman Robert Wexler of Florida, and by fixing problematic elements. Rob Malley, the Clinton official who blamed Israel as much as Yasir Arafat for the collapse of the Camp David summit, was not an adviser, just someone asked to give an opinion.

Samantha Power, one of Obama's more influential supporters - and at times a fierce, if somewhat confused, critic of Israel - is no longer with the campaign. Even when she was, she did not call the shots on Middle East policy. Obama's success with the Jewish vote is testimony to the skill and to the methodical approach he brought to his historic campaign.

For example, last Sunday morning, in one of Cleveland's Jewish suburbs a Jewish volunteer for Obama's campaign encountered an elderly man.

"Who will you vote for?" he asked. "I don't yet know," was the answer. "I have a fear of Obama, my wife tells me I'm crazy, but I'm still concerned." The young activist tried to talk him out of his fears, then gave him some reading material. Later that day, the activist attended the Obama rally featuring Bruce Springsteen, not far from Lake Eerie.

But something about this older Jewish voter bothered the activist, and he went back to the house. "Yes, I read every word of every document you gave me," the man said. He would not commit, but seemed convinced. Two days later, Obama carried Ohio, he carried Cleveland, and he carried the Jewish vote.

Obama played his cards right, forcing McCain into desperately trying to persuade voters that Obama was dangerous. In the last days of the campaign, the airwaves were filled with ads reminding voters that Obama was once a member of Jeremiah Wright's church. "God damn America," the reverend's words were played again and again. Jewish voters were either bored - "what else is new, this is old stuff" - or outraged - "the Republicans are trying again to scare us with their tactics", as one Philly-area resident Marsha Davids said.

She voted for the new president, as did most of her friends. They did it for many reasons. Partly because Obama did a good job convincing them that he will be as supportive of Israel as almost every American president has been. And partly for the reasons for which most Americans voted for him: they dislike George Bush and are suspicious of the Republican Party and its Evangelical Christian constituency.

They also supported him because they found Sarah Palin to be less than impressive. She will be blamed for McCain's loss of Jewish voters, but in truth, it seems more like the excuse people were waiting for than the real reason. US Jews voted for Obama because they are the most liberal group of voters in this country, and nothing makes them happier than the opportunity to try to renew the historic alliance of the 60s between Jews and blacks, fighting together for the advancement of American society.

Shmuel Rosner blogs daily at

The Jews set to play a central role in Obama's administration 

President-elect Barack Obama has yet to name his cabinet, but the identity of at least two of the most powerful members of his personal staff is already certain.

For the job of White House Chief-of-Staff, he has selected Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel. Mr Emanuel, who entered Congress in 2003, was credited with masterminding the Democratic Party's recapture of the House in the 2006 mid-term elections. Although he is on the left side of the political divide, his father, who was born in Jerusalem, was a member of the Irgun underground in the years before Israel's independence. Mr Emanuel, who went to a Jewish day school in Chicago, was the inspiration for Josh Lyman, the deputy White House Chief of Staff in the West Wing.

Another friend of Mr Obama's from Chicago, former journalist and political consultant David Axelrod, is also tipped for a senior adviser role in the new administration. Mr Axelrod was the chief strategist on the Obama presidential campaign, credited with devising tactics both during the Democratic primaries and in the push for the Presidency, and he has been advising the President-elect since his run for the Illinois State Senate in 2004.

All the main candidates for the crucial job of Treasury Secretary, the man who will have to deal with the global financial crisis, are Jewish. They include Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, who both held the job in the Clinton Administration, former president of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Tim Geithner and even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is mentioned as an outside candidate.

Former Secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig, has been tipped as a possible Secretary of Defence or National Security Adviser, as has Jim Steinberg, who was a deputy adviser in the Clinton years. John Kitzhaber, the former Oregon Governor, is a candidate for the post of Health Secretary, and Penny Pritzker, who was the finance chairman of Obama's campaign, is mentioned as a possible Commerce Secretary. California Congresswoman Jane Harman is being touted as the next Homeland Security Secretary or the head of the CIA. It is still unclear whether Mr Obama has a candidate for the thankless task of Middle East envoy. His foreign affairs advisers include former envoy Dennis Ross and former ambassador to Israel and Egypt Dan Kertzer. But neither are likely to be interested in a return to active diplomacy.

Last updated: 1:55pm, September 19 2010