Open Mic Night at the G-20

By Stephen Steinlight on November 10, 2011
"You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day!"
-- Obama to Sarkozy on Netanyahu

To which a historically unprecedented percentage of American Jewish voters might wish to respond to a Democratic president: "We've had enough of you, and, what's more, we may not have to deal with you much longer." It's hardly news Obama and Netanyahu politely despise one another, but the rules of the game demand neither have the bad taste to put it on public display. It would be impolitic in the extreme for a struggling president facing re-election to alienate a key component of his base that is already skeptical about his loyalty to their interests as well as gratuitously offend and politically energize millions of conservative Christian Zionists; it risks substantial damage to trust between historic allies; and it undermines diplomacy with Israel, the Palestinians, and other Arab states. The president's naked hostility exhibited in his "are you telling me!" response to Sarkozy's flip remark that he "can't stand" Israel's Prime Minister "because he's a liar" will cost him a very considerable amount of political capital at home, and will drive the last nail into the coffin of U.S.-Israel-Palestinian "peace" initiatives. Both developments are "consummations devoutly to be wished." In addition to having their worst fears about Obama's authentic feelings towards Israel's leadership confirmed, American Jews are increasingly alienated by other policy goals of the president, "comprehensive immigration reform" being a principal one. It is likely anger about the first will fuel discontent with the second, representing a major dividend to opponents of amnesty and open-borders immigration.

Though several journalists eavesdropped on the remarks via still open mics at the conclusion of the G-20 where the conversation took place on November 3, this embarrassing episode might never have come to light had it not been reported on the website of Arrêt Sur Images four days later. The story was then confirmed by Agence France Press and Reuters, whose reporters were among those who overheard, but chose not to report it, and it has already begun to go viral. It was the lead story in the Jerusalem Post and across the Israeli media the next day as well as in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, though the latter led with Sarkozy's comments. Slate, surprisingly enough, didn't pull any punches. Its story was titled "Obama, Sarkozy Overheard Dissing Netanyahu", and the Oval in USA Today titled its piece "Sarkozy, Obama rip Netanyahu (in private)". Even the New York Times eventually came out with a story giving it substantial treatment with a focus on the damage it will likely inflict on U.S. diplomacy.

One can count on the tête-á-tête heard round the world receiving top billing in many Republican and conservative blogs, as well as top in-depth coverage in every Jewish publication. The counter-attack began immediately with "McCain slams Obama for Netanyahu criticism" and "Bachmann pushes Obama to apologize to Israel's PM for candid comments caught on an open mic". Further examples of what will follow is summarized a New York Post headline: "Bibi-bashing as Iran plots" Even the moderately liberal and usually irenic Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post came out swinging in a blog featuring the highly provocative title "Why do Sarkozy and Obama hate Netanyahu?".

The Jewish institutional counter-attack has also begun. The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman called the exchange "decidedly unpresidential", adding:

"President Obama's response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader," ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement issued Tuesday. "In light of the revelations here, we hope that the Obama Administration will do everything it can to reassure Israel that the relationship remains on a sure footing and to reinvigorate the trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, which clearly is not what it should be."

Pleasurable as it is, there's little point in enumerating similar comments from leading Republican political figures, conservative commentators, Israel supporters, and Jewish leaders. There will also be a flood from Democratic Jewish members of Congress from states and districts with a substantial Jewish population. There's no way to keep up with them. Suffice it to say, the president is in very hot water, though it's unlikely he'd deign to "apologize" to the Jews, and certainly not with the kind of high-flown rhetoric he spouted after his long association with Rev. Wright became known. In addition, few would now find him credible.

It can be safely assumed the lights have been burning late in the offices of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), who have had to work overtime since this president's inauguration twisting themselves into pretzels to "Stop the Smears" regarding Obama's unprecedented iciness-cum-hostility to Israel. Despite their renown for turning fact into fiction, it is very hard to see how their inventive minds will be able to spin this one; these are the president's own words spoken privately in imagined confidence to another head of state. A new cautionary motto of Obama's White House might well be "In Vino (or a Supposedly Turned-Off Mic) Veritas."

It would have been worse for Obama had this occurred and surfaced closer to election day, but it will likely prove disastrous nonetheless. His current standing with the American Jewish community is extremely low. According to a piece in New York's Jewish Week whose title says it all, "Gloom Factor Sinks Obama's Standing with Jewish Voters":

President Barack Obama's approval rating among Jewish voters has fallen six points in just seven months, and a surprisingly strong 33 percent of those surveyed say the nation would be better off with a Republican-led Congress, according to a just-released poll of Jewish voters by the American Jewish Committee.

To which one of the nation's top political observers adds:

"A 51 percent positive rating for a Democratic president among Jews is, frankly, terrible," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "That is barely higher than Obama's national approval rating of 42 to 48 percent, depending on the poll.

"This is Obama's low point so far, no question," Sabato continued. "It is coming at just the wrong moment, given the Nov. 2 midterm elections."

A more recent survey

by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has worse news for the president. Jewish support for Obama has fallen below the 50 per cent mark: 45 percent of American Jews approve of Obama, 48 percent disapprove. This is a precipitous drop from findings in the same survey in 2010 where his approval rating among Jews was 57 percent.

The damage is likely to prove lasting, given the president's vulnerable political state, with many Jewish voters questioning his ability to manage the economy, dissenting from "comprehensive immigration reform, viewing with dismay his conduct the nation's foreign affairs, especially his support for the "Arab Spring" that is bringing Jew-hating Islamist regimes to power; and suspicious of his support for Israel even before this most recent misadventure. Though diehard loyalists will try to dismiss the overheard conversation as a mere gaffe, it will cause his weak numbers to become more anemic. Even without a third party candidate, it is not impossible Obama will do no better than Jimmy Carter in 1980 when the sanctimonious national schoolmarm received just 44 percent of the Jewish vote, a plurality, not a majority.

How does this relate to immigration politics? For the first time in living memory immigration will be a central issue in a presidential election. This presents a tremendous opportunity to oppose illegal immigration and stop the amnesty a victorious Obama would surely work toward that would cause an explosion in legal immigration dwarfing even the present tsunami, a transformational act with so many negative ramifications it could undo the United States. Immigration has already dominated the Republican primaries, where a principal cause of the implosion of Gov. Rick Perry's candidacy – even before his recent "Oops" moment – was his lamentable record in that area. No candidate will win the Republican nomination who is not an immigration hawk. A Republican candidate who opposes amnesty and open borders will run against a president who supports both. Every development that fractionates the Democratic base matters, and American Jews have long been a key part of it. There's good news on both counts.

Though Jews vote at the highest rate of any group of Americans, their percent of the population is small, but they are concentrated in states with high electoral votes, some of which are swing states. Significant Jewish defection from the Democrats due to Obama's documented hostility to Israel's democratically elected leader as well as his immigration policy will likely make a major difference.

Though CNN's exit polls are well-regarded for their profile of the electorate state-by-state, some demographers note CNN's margin of error may be as high as 5 percent. The exit polling for 2008 finds only three percent of New York voters are Jewish, an extremely low estimate. To correct this, one can select a number between CNN"s data and a potential 5 percent margin of error. The results suggest the Jewish vote should not be dismissed in what may turn out to be swing states in 2012. Not counting states with relatively high percentages of Jews that are certain to go Democratic in 2012, that leaves New Jersey (a reach for the Republicans, but not impossible) with from seven to ten percent; Florida with from four to eight percent; Pennsylvania with four to seven percent; and Ohio with three to six percent. Considering shifts in the Hispanic vote of only five percentage points made the difference in several states in the Mountain West in 2008, we could see a similar trend with the Jewish vote going in the other direction, and in this case in states with large numbers of electoral votes.

Even more important than Jewish voters are Jewish campaign contributions or, to be more precise, a sharp reduction in the amount going to re-elect the president. A very significant percent of the dollars that fuel the Democratic political machine has historically come from Jewish donors. In years when Democratic primaries are contested, some 40-50 percent of that money comes from Jewish sources. Jewish contributions to Obama's re-election effort are already down significantly from 2008 levels. The figure most often cited has been a drop of 25 percent, but that was before Obama's dramatic tumble in polls of Jewish support, and before his recent comments on Netanyahu. Jewish donors might conceivably express their anger at Obama's contemptuous treatment of Israel's Prime Minister by reducing overall support by as much as 40-50 percent.

Finally, a host of recent data, including from CIS's own survey on the attitudes of Americans toward immigration which tracked respondents by religious or denominational affiliation, plus surveys sponsored by Jewish Establishment organizations, show a sea change in Jewish attitudes towards immigration. In a particularly dramatic finding, when asked if attrition through enforcement represented a good policy for dealing with the illegal population (strict border enforcement combined with tough enforcement of immigration law to promote the self-deportation of illegal aliens) 79 percent responded in the affirmative.

With mounting Jewish anger at the president for the nation's economic crisis, for lack of control of America's borders, his support for changes in Arab countries most fear, his disconcerting silence regarding Iran's nuclear program, and his personal hostility to Israel at the same time when American Jews are moving slowly but steadily to the center-right, this demographic can no longer be counted upon to vote in overwhelming numbers for him. He may get a small majority, but that equals a loss. He will likely rue the day he indulged his hostility to Israel in a sneering exchange with the French Prime Minister into an open mic.