Obama, Romney, and Jewish temptations

The news of recent days reminds us that, in a close U.S. presidential election (as the ObamaRomney contest is expected to be), Jews have an influence that far exceeds their numbers across America.

That’s because they congregate in key swing states (e.g., Florida, Ohio) and the wealthiest among them tap their resources for candidates and causes.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this past weekend, White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has shared secret U.S. plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites if sanctions and diplomacy fail; that top Obama military and diplomatic officials have visited Israel often of late; or that Romney made Israel a key stop on his global tour.

Three months from Election Day, these very public displays of affection for the Jewish State are all about courting America’s Jewish vote; about proclaiming one’s Zionistic bona fides; about an incumbent and his rival each selling himself as better equipped and more likely to protect Israel from a nuclear weapons-seeking Iran and Jew-hating terrorists.

The key question, in this election cycle, is where Israeli security ranks in the pantheon of Jewish concerns.

That Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic is no secret. That, as they do so, the precise Democratic share of their vote can fluctuate quite a bit is no secret either. That’s what makes this election so intriguing.

Yes, Obama will get more Jewish votes than Romney. The issue is whether Jews will give Obama about the same 78 percent that they did in 2008 or shift markedly to Romney, potentially swinging the election?

The answer to that question could turn on two others:

First, will progressivism trump Zionism?

Jews are overwhelmingly progressive. They’ve backed Democrats in great numbers in recent decades because they largely share Democratic views about the role of government, fairness in budget and tax policy, civil rights, environmental protection, social issues like abortion, and so on.

Obama is America’s most progressive President in decades. He pushed through a landmark health reform that promises to essentially achieve the longstanding Democratic goal of universal health coverage; re-wrote financial regulation in response to the financial crisis that he inherited; and addressed America’s deep recession with a classic Keynesian “stimulus” measure that probably averted a deeper economic catastrophe.

On domestic policy, the Obama-Romney contrast could hardly be starker. Obama grew government; Romney would shrink it. Obama wants the rich to pay more taxes; Romney would cut taxes more at the top. Obama is implementing health reform; Romney would repeal it. Obama would protect the safety net; Romney would radically re-think it.

That Obama and Romney differ starkly on these issues surely will help the former with Jews. At least some Jewish progressives who are otherwise concerned about Obama’s approach to Israel will vote for the incumbent in order to save the welfare state.

Second, will promises trump distrust?

Making his case for the Jewish vote, Obama points to, among other things, his effort to impose ever-tighter sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, his pledge to prevent Tehran from developing the bomb, and a U.S.-Israeli military and intelligence partnership that he says has grown stronger on his watch.

Nevertheless, many Jews don’t trust Obama’s assurance that he’s got “Israel’s back,” and they worry about what he would do in a second term when he no longer needs Jewish votes. That’s because they haven’t forgotten the early signals that he sent about his views on Israel and how best to make regional peace.

In his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo in June of 2009, he seemed to equate the experience of Jews during the Holocaust to that of Palestinians under Jewish occupation in the territories.

A month later, he told Jewish leaders at the White House that he needed to talk tough to Israel, publicly and privately, and create space between Washington and Jerusalem to push IsraeliPalestinian peace forward.

In 2010, he elevated an awkward Israeli announcement about a settlement expansion in a Jewish community in northern Jerusalem, which occurred while Vice President Biden was visiting Israel, into a major controversy.

After Israel apologized and Biden was returning to Washington, he ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to dress down Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone and then refused to issue a joint statement when Netanyahu visited Washington a few weeks later.

So, here’s where we are:

As progressives, Jews will be tempted to stick with Obama. As Zionists, they’ll be tempted to switch sides.

The question, which could determine who sits in the Oval Office next year, is which temptation will prevail.

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