Does Obama actually have to BE Jewish?

As Lenny Bruce would say, "Dig: Obama's Jewish" --  or at least his friends say he is.

Obama's longtime friend and supporter Alan Solow, former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has a suggestion on how to sell the president to nervous Jewish voters, as Benjy Sarlin reports:

“At the risk of stereotyping us, he thinks like a Jew,” he said, likening Obama’s decision-making process to a Talmudic scholar. “I knew it before he was the president, and I’ve seen it every day since he’s been the president.”

He added: “Barack Obama has a Jewish soul. He has neshama.”

Solow is following up on a theme pushed by several Jewish journalists including the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg:

[H]e is the most Jewish president we've ever had (except for Rutherford B. Hayes). No president, not even Bill Clinton, has traveled so widely in Jewish circles, been taught by so many Jewish law professors, and had so many Jewish mentors, colleagues, and friends, and advisers as Barack Obama (though it is true that every so often he appoints a gentile to serve as White House chief of staff).

... and the Daily Beast's Peter Beinart

What Obama understands, via Heschel and Alinsky and his many progressive Jewish friends, is Tikkun Olam, a form of Jewish identity that, like it or not, is more pervasive in the United States than either observant Judaism or active Zionism. If it weren’t, Obama would never have won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. 

Longtime Obama advisor and former White House Counsel Abner Mikva has joked, "When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has said “he came into office with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish thought than, I would argue, any president in recent memory.”

Obama himself has picked up on the theme in discussions with Jewish leaders, as reported by Haaretz in May: 

There were some questions directed at the presidents concerning his thoughts on the role of religious leaders in a more civil political dialogue, which then lead to the inevitable question - how does he feels about Israel? Obama joked that Lew always warns him it will get to "the kishkes question." 

"Rather than describe how deeply I care about Israel, I want to be blunt about how we got here," Obama said, reminding his guests that he had so many Jewish friends in Chicago  at the beginning of his political career that he was accused of  being a puppet of the Israel lobby.[...]

Obama also stressed he probably knows about Judaism more than any other president, because he read about it - and wondered how come no one asks Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner or Senate minority leader Mitch McConnel about their support to Israel. 

I understand the need to counter the GOP line that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus" and what Goldberg calls "the cosmic joke that he is somehow anti-Semitic," but these meme is getting a little out of hand. Surely those charges are easy enough to rebut without arguing that Obama is more Jewish than his opponents, or has more Jewish friends than them, or has a Jewish soul, or "thinks like a Jew" -- whatever that means. It feels just a bit overdefensive: it's not like McConnel and Boehner feel any compulsion to demonstrate their M.O.T. status either.

I think it should be okay to accept that there are no Jews in this race. Just a Protestant, a Mormon, and two Catholic VP nominees, who may differ on Mideast policy but aren't anti-Semitic and aren't threatening to throw Israel under anything. Goyim can have kishkes too.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


Take the Peter Feaver challenge!

Over on Shadow Government, Peter Feaver continues his debate with Charles Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson with a challenge:

In my piece, I identified four obvious mistakes (there were many more I could have chosen): announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline at the same time that the Afghan surge was announced; the failure to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime; the imposition of new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem; and the delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. Are Jentleson and Kupchan willing to concede that those were indeed mistakes?

I'm sure Kupchan and Jentleson will want to respond, but in the meantime, I think these are interesting charges. Let's examine them one by one.

1. Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline along with Afghan surge. Dumb. Obama undercut his surge by declaring it would only be a temporary thing. The rationale here was twofold: reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party (and many others) that the president didn't want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai et al that they'd better get their acts together in a hurry. The first part of the strategy worked, in the sense that it took the war off the table domestically. The second part? Meh, not so much. Maybe the impending 2014 withdrawal deadline will focus some minds in the Afghan government, but there are precious few signs that it has done so to date.

Verdict: Point to Feaver, but just barely. Why? Because staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever is a terrible idea that very few Americans support, which is why Romney has barely mentioned the war and didn't even say the name of the country during his convention speech.

2. Failing to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime. Note here that Feaver is careful not to make the crazy, indefensible version of this charge: that Obama should have somehow embraced or helped the Green Movement overthrow the Iranian government. The Obama administration's assessment was that coming out loudly in favor of the protesters would have made it even easier for the regime to crush them, and many Iran analysts agree. It's worth noting here that the Green Movement was not actually about overthrowing the system, however (though its remnants may evolve in that more radical direction). It was about disputing the results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, which was the common-denominator consensus of the movement's various different factions. The movement's putative leaders, Mir Hossain Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Muhammad Khatami, were careful not to call for an end to Iran's clerical system, and they never called for outside help as far as I can remember.

What about the case for ramping up more pressure on the regime? Well, that is exactly what Obama has done since then, getting the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese to sign up for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And, though arguably Obama has been pushed by Congress into enacting tougher unilateral sanctions than he wanted (or than many on the left thought were humane or wise), here we are.

Verdict: Unknowable, but I don't see much to Feaver's argument.

3. Imposing new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Israeli settlements -- excuse me, "housing developments." If you believe Israel should not be making it harder to reach a permanent agreement, as U.S. presidents have for several decades now, then Obama was just hewing to a longstanding bipartisan consensus. It was probably a tactical error for Obama to make settlements the focus of discussions if he wasn't prepared to stick to his guns. But look, folks: Neither side is willing to pay the price required for a lasting peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't believe in it (read his book -- he says so explicitly), and Mahmoud Abbas is too weak and wrongly thinks time is on the Palestinians' side.

Verdict: Meh. Basically, it's hard to argue that course X or course Y would have led to a better result, because the peace process is a joke and very few people believe in it anymore. Obama's real mistake was trying at all, given the circumstances and his fundamental gutlessness on this issue.

4. The delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. So what? The South Korea FTA was fairly large, as these things go, but eventually it got done, as did Colombia. The opposition to the Colombia FTA was ridiculous given that it was fundamentally about ratifying a strong existing relationship and permanently opening the Colombian market to U.S. goods. But the Colombian market is just not very big.

Verdict: Weak sauce. I'm actually surprised that Feaver doesn't level a far more serious and defensible charge, which is that Obama just isn't a free trader at heart and has pandered to the left wing of his party by talking nonsense about outsourcing (when he really means offshoring) and failing to offer a Bill Clinton-like argument about why globalization is not only irreversible, but good for the United States. Obama has continued to explore things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced Russia's long-overdue entry into the WTO. But in general, this isn't a big priority for his administration and Republicans have rightly criticized him for it.

But here's the problem: Free trade just isn't very popular among voters, and especially not in the Democratic Party in the post-2008 era. Even economists like Alan Blinder have started to have their doubts about offshoring. Does anyone believe Obama could have fundamentally moved the needle on this?

P.S.: Remember when the Bush adminstration succeeded in finishing the Doha Round? Me neither.