The View from Pennsylvania: A Cloudy Crystal Ball

January 1, 2012
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Betsy R. Sheerr

It is, of course, a fool’s errand to predict in November 2011 how President Barack Obama will fare with the Jewish vote in November 2012. With every election in recent memory, there have been dire predictions of the Jewish vote swinging more Republican, yet there has been minimal movement in that direction. (To paraphrase Ann Lewis, senior adviser to both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it seems that every Democrat knows every Jew who did switch to vote Republican!)

What are the factors, issues, and values that will influence the Jewish vote in 2012?

Neither President Obama nor any other person who stepped into the presidency in 2008 could have lived up to the impossibly inflated expectations of that heady election. We were all more focused on election results than on the extreme difficulty that governing would be for anyone in that time of growing economic and political uncertainty — even before the “Great Recession” hit.

Here in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the Jewish community is not monolithic. We vote according to a number of key issues. At the top of the list are jobs and the economy as well as the relationship between the United States and Israel. The role of the U.S. Supreme Court looms large in any presidential election: In 2012, the power of even one new appointee, likely in the next term, can sway the court’s direction on such fundamental issues as the separation of religion and state, women’s reproductive rights, health care, and minority rights. To many American Jews, these domestic issues, plus education, the economy, and social justice, matter deeply; and, from election to election, it has been a constant that American Jews make voting decisions based on values. Until there is a Congressional agreement about deficit reduction, consequences predicted for defense spending and for health, education, and welfare cuts may well influence this election. The campaign of the next year will focus our attention on the role of government in our lives. It is on that topic that Republicans and Democrats differ sharply. Jewish voters have traditionally been more supportive of the Democratic Party’s interpretation of government as the guarantor of social justice, and I do not expect that to change.

The Marcellus Shale controversy in Pennsylvania raises environmental and economic concerns. It may or may not become a national issue in 2012 as the country debates dependency on foreign energy supplies and the economic and environmental issues around hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Today, what seems to loom most prominently is the U.S.–Israel relationship and, in particular, America’s support of Israel’s security in a time of increased isolation. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has emphatically underscored the close U.S.–Israel relationship on several strategic levels. When Turkey disinvited the Israeli military from participating in a joint military exercise, the United States. also pulled out. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called every European foreign minister to urge support of Israel’s membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Obama has provided Israel with an annual $3 billion in security assistance, the highest amount ever. And recently, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak heaped praise on President Obama’s commitment to blocking Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And while speculation about Jewish support for Obama continues, his fundraising — within the Jewish community — remains strong.1

On the international front, Obama has repeatedly affirmed his determination to prevent a nuclear Iran from exercising nuclear power — a growing, global danger. If the current rumblings about Iran’s nuclear progress continue to grow louder in the context of America’s national security, the preference for diplomacy and economic sanctions vs. “other options” may well differentiate the presidential candidates.

However, just like every other election, this one will come down to the choices voters have and the relative merits of each candidate on a variety of issues.

As of this writing, smoke from the smoldering failure of the deficit panel “super committee” has yet to clear. Rather than a large defection of Jewish votes to the Republican candidate, my fear is that an increasingly disillusioned and cynical electorate will simply choose to stay home next November. For Jews as for all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, that would be a disastrous outcome, one I hope we will all work assiduously to avoid.

1 A December 23, 2011 article in The Forward affirms that President Obama has retained the backing of his major 2008 donors and bundlers, and attracted new funding as well.

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Betsy R. Sheerr president of Sheerr Communications, is an executive presentation skills coach. A Democrat and longtime pro-Israel activist, she is a former national chair of JACPAC, the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a bipartisan “pro-Israel PAC with a domestic conscience.” As the mother of four and grandmother of three, she is deeply concerned with national security and quality of life issues.

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