President Obama speaks as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla. on Oct. 22, 2012.
In the 2008 presidential election Sen. Barack Obama received somewhere between 74 percent to 78 percent of the Jewish vote. His repeated invocations of, and praise for, Israel Monday leads me to believe that he will settle for nothing less than 7,478 percent of the Jewish vote come Nov. 6, 2012.
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney labored to develop a relatively heady argument about the urgency of combatting the mindset of Islamic extremism, President Obama just couldn’t stop kvelling about the Jewish state. He gushed about forthcoming joint Israeli-American military maneuvers. He vowed to stand with Israel in case of an Iranian aggression. “Israel,” the president enthused, “is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency.”
When Romney pressed his opponent about “skipping Israel” during his “apology tour” throughout the Islamic world, Obama went rhetorically nuclear. In an effort to blunt that potentially devastating line of attack he riposted: “I went to Yad Vashem [Judaism’s central memorial to the Holocuast in Israel]. . . to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.” This was clearly a rehearsed and calculated response. And a risky one at that: for Jews the memory of the Shoah is simply not fair game in the realm of politicking.
Why did the President devote so much energy to shoring up his pro-Israel credentials? The most obvious response — he really wants the Jewish vote! — doesn’t totally add up. Jews are a small minority, variously estimated to be a scant 1.6 to 2.2 percent of the American population.
Another thing to recall about Jews is that they already vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even if they jump ship to the red side of ledger — a (unfulfilled) prediction that GOP-friendly Jews have been making for decades — members of the Tribe tend to be heavily concentrated in states that are already in the bag for Democrats (e.g., New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, California).
The theory that Obama talked up Israel Monday night because he wants every American of the mosaic persuasion to vote for him faces yet another challenge. Curiously, Jewish-Americans consistently tell pollsters that they rank questions of U.S.-Israeli relations rather low down on the list of issues that motivate their behavior in the voting booth. Had Obama emphasized abortion rights (which 93 percent of Jews favor) he would have swayed more Jewish hearts and minds.
We might profitably read Obama’s shout-outs to Israel as a symptom of his campaign’s concern about recent slippage in Florida. Jews in the Sunshine State (estimated to be about 3.4 to 4 percent of the overall population) turn out in droves. Maybe the president’s handlers are looking for something, anything, to stave off Romney’s recent gains there. The same strategy, I guess, might be in play for hotly contested Ohio as well.
Then again maybe Obama was trying to do precisely what Romney did tonight, but in reverse. The former governor of Massachusetts continued his pivot to the center, abandoning his primary pose as a “severe conservative.” Obama, for his part, may have been attempting his own pivot, albeit one initiated from a different direction. Americans, not only Jewish Americans, are overwhelmingly supportive of, and sympathetic to, Israel, a valued and trustworthy ally.
Perhaps Obama’s performance at the final debate was actually an appeal to the nation’s vast non-Jewish center that values the Middle East’s sole stable democracy.
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.” Follow him on Twitter at @berlinerblau