WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s early days for the White House’s latest charm offensive among American Jews, but a new poll suggests that the wooing effort is having little effect.
The poll, published Wednesday by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that generally backs President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies, shows Obama stuck at the same mid-50s approval ratings he was registering in April, when U.S.-Israel tensions were prominently in the news.
Jim Gerstein, whose GBA Strategies conducted the poll, suggested that Obama and his supporters face an environment among Jews that has been shaped largely by the president’s critics.
“The balance of criticism against the president on issues related to Israel has far outweighed the statements of support for the president, certainly among the organizations that have the largest reach,” Gerstein told reporters on Wednesday.
The 56 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama scored in the GBA poll is still about 10 points higher than the national average. It’s also not the first time he has scored in the 50s among Jews. Obama’s numbers among voting-age Jewish Americans have fluctuated throughout his seven years in office.
This poll, however, follows a high profile and intensive effort by the administration to reassure American Jews that he has the best interests of Israel and Jews worldwide at heart.
The White House launched the outreach in April after weeks of public tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the emerging Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from the Republican leadership to address Congress in March, and remarks by the Israeli leader during his reelection campaign that appeared to reject a two-state solution and denigrate Arab-Israeli voters, further irked the White House.
Wednesday’s poll, conducted between May 31 and June 3 among 1,000 Jewish adults, showed just a gain of just 2 points — well within the 3.1 percent margin of error — over an April 10 Gallup poll that showed Obama with a 54 percent approval rating among American Jews.
The latest numbers come after Obama gave interviews to two prominent Jewish journalists — The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — in which he discussed his closeness to Israel, and another with a leading Israeli television journalist, Ilana Dayan. He marked Jewish American Heritage Month with an impassioned speech on May 22 at the Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue here.
The president’s top aides have made sure to address virtually every major Jewish conference in recent weeks. Most recently, Jacob Lew, the Treasury secretary, endured boos at the annual conference organized by The Jerusalem Post — a gathering notable in the past for attracting Obama’s most acerbic critics.
The theme of Obama’s messaging is that he sees Israel as a key strategic ally, and also has an emotional attachment to the country and the Jewish people.
“To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating,” Obama said in the speech at the synagogue.
“The example of Israel and its values was inspiring,” he said. “So when I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object, and I object forcefully.”
Obama bristles when he is told he is not reaching Israelis and Jews on the gut level.
“Well, the people here think I’m a pretty good hugger,” he told Dayan after she revealed to him that a confidant of his had told her that Obama is “not a hugger.”
Over the years, the White House has pushed back against perceptions that Obama is cool on Israel, noting that the levels of defense assistance and cooperation between the countries are unprecedented and casting disagreements over Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and the Iran nuclear talks as tactical, not strategic.
Still, the president’s critics in the right-wing pro-Israel community have found traction with a narrative built on real and perceived gaps in the relationship.
Some of the criticisms have been grounded in fact, including the Obama administration’s decision to keep details of the emerging Iran deal from Israel, in part because it believed that the Israelis were leaking the details to media.
But others are more fable, such as the claim that in 2010, Obama thanked six nations assisting Haiti following the earthquake there but did not mention Israel. Obama incurred the wrath of groups like the Zionist Organization of America over Haiti, even though the president’s statement in that case was made before Israeli relief crews landed in the country. Nevertheless, the idea that Obama deliberately snubbed Israel’s Haiti relief has persisted, and reportedly is making an appearance in former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s forthcoming account of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The narrative of Obama’s ill intent has appeared to help shape perceptions among Jewish-Americans.
While 57 percent of respondents in the J Street poll agreed that Obama “has repeatedly demonstrated his support for the state and the people of Israel” and he has “led unprecedented military and security cooperation between the United States and Israel,” a substantial 43 percent agreed that he “unfairly undermines Israel’s interests and does not sufficiently support the Jewish state” and “has gone too far in his criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his criticism sends the wrong message to Israel’s enemies.”
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said the numbers were strong and it was unrealistic to expect a change in attitudes so soon.
“President Obama is doing substantially better in the Jewish community than he is in the public at large,” Mellman said in an interview, noting the gap between the 56 percent approval rating the president scores among Jews and the 45 percent on average among the wider American public. “It’s unreasonable to expect the Adas speech would have much impact.”
Mark McNulty, the spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that has advanced the narrative that Obama cares little about Israel, said the poll showed that Jewish-Americans needed more than rhetoric.
“A charm offensive is not going to do anything to paper over the wounds that have developed over the last six years,” he said.