Will his pivot from economy to Mideast issues move the needle in the Jewish community?
Is it suddenly not the economy, stupid, but foreign policy?
With only 34 days left before Election Day, and after a campaign dominated by a sputtering economy, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a new line of attack this week, leveling a strong critique of President Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East.
But will it move voters in the Jewish community, for whom domestic and social issues tend to be paramount?
That was the question observers were pondering this week after Romney’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal moved beyond just the Israeli-Palestinian question to offer a broad attack of the president’s policies across the Middle East.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, noted that AJC surveys of Jewish voters nationwide and in the crucial swing states of Ohio and Florida found that Jews are most concerned about the economy and health care.
“National security and U.S.-Israel relations and Iran are all important, but they are in the second tier of issues,” Harris said. “And the polls reveal a little more criticism of President Obama in those areas.”
In the Ohio poll released Monday, Harris pointed out, only 46 percent of Jews agreed with Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear issue while 40 percent disapproved.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday, Romney took Obama to task for his handling of the “disturbing developments” throughout the greater Middle East — from the slaughter taking place in Syria; to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; to the murder of the U.S. ambassador and three aides in Libya in a terrorist attack; to the storming of U.S. embassies throughout the region, and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons “all the while promising to annihilate Israel.”
“President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy,” Romney wrote, adding that Obama has created “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel and recently declined to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The AJC poll of Ohio Jews found that 64 percent support Obama and 29 percent support Romney. A similar poll of Florida Jews found 69 percent supporting Obama, compared with 25 percent who favor Romney. Nationally, Obama has the support of 65 percent of Jews, compared with 24 percent who favor Romney.
The national poll found also that 61 percent support Obama’s handling of both the Iranian nuclear program and U.S.-Israel relations.
In Florida, 51 of Jews approve of Obama’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue while 36 percent disapproved. And 61 percent approved of his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, with only 31 percent disapproving. Asked if this foreign relations push by Romney could have an impact on Jewish voters, Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University, replied: “The answer is yes, but we are talking only about statistically small numbers. If it affects a tiny percentage of people in South Florida, it might be important.”
“But it makes zero difference in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” he continued. “Even in Ohio right now and in Pennsylvania and Virginia I would rather be sitting where Obama is, because I would rather be ahead in a race that is a statistical dead heat than behind.”
Asked about street demonstrations in Iran this week over the collapse of the local currency because of sanctions imposed by the international community, Kahn said the events “would only support Obama” because they would demonstrate that the sanctions are hurting the Iranian regime.
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of state and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that although the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya “hurt the president on the question of competence — were sufficient precautions taken? — it is not going to be determinative.”
Miller pointed out that even though the unemployment rate has remained above 8 percent for 42 straight months, “the country remains deeply divided; the election is still close.”
“Even if people blame the president for economic misery, they ask if the other guy has a plan to make the misery go away, and Romney has not succeeded in presenting a compelling answer,” he said. “In Florida, the image of Romney and [running mate Paul] Ryan as Medicare and Medicaid cutters resonate more than Iran and Israel,” Miller added. “At a time when the country is not focused on foreign policy, I don’t buy the notion that you can insert foreign policy into the campaign — it will hurt, if anything.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University and author of the book, “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom,” pointed out that last month Ryan suggested that the issue of prayer in public schools might be one best left to the states — an unsettling issue for Jews.
He said that although Jews may like Romney because he is successful and family oriented, he is being weighed down by the Republican Party and the fact it is “keeping company with revivalists — conservative Christians and folks who make Jews nervous.”
That view was echoed by Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, who said he has no doubt that Romney is pandering for voters and more importantly the Evangelical movement that supports Israel.”
“This is very important in several Southern states and the Northwest,” he said.
Alon also disagreed that Obama has had a failed foreign policy, saying: “Obama has been dealing with foreign policy very skillfully. I talk regularly to foreign officials at the United Nations and in Washington and I have not found anyone saying he is lacking in foreign policy or does not have a grasp of the issues.”