WASHINGTON -- American Jews are feeling “grumpy,” according to the American Jewish Committee’s take on its latest public opinion survey.
That's not good news for President Barack Obama, whose Jewish approval level has dipped below 50 percent. But American Jews don't seem particularly excited about the Republicans hoping to replace him either.
Jews now approve and disapprove of Obama's performance in roughly equal numbers, according to the annual poll, released Monday. It shows 45 percent of American Jews approve of Obama as opposed to 48 percent disapproving -- the difference falling within with the survey's margin of error of 3 percentage points. The numbers show a substantial drop for Obama from the 57 percent of Jews who approved of his performance in the 2010 AJC survey.
Asked about various areas of Obama's performance, American Jews were the most sour on how he has handled the economy, with 60 percent of respondents disapproving and only 37 percent approving.
"They continue to be grumpy about the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, they're pessimistic about the prospects of solving the Iran problem," David Harris, AJC's executive director, told JTA. "But they're grumpiest about the economy."
Jewish Republicans have been attacking Obama on both foreign policy and on the economy lately.
“We'll be talking about domestic issues like the economy, like we did in 2010 and 2009,” said Matthew Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director. Republican efforts to win over Jews in 2008 focused almost entirely on the issue of Israel, and Obama captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
In AJC's latest poll, there's a virtual tie in the president's approval and disapproval levels on foreign policy, with 47 percent of Jews approving of Obama's performance versus 48 percent disapproving.
More troubling for Democrats was the drop in perceptions of how Obama handled the US-Israel relationship, with 53 percent disapproving and 40 percent approving this year, as opposed to 45 percent disapproving and 49 percent approving last year.
David A. Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president -- and no relation to the AJC director -- noted the difference between Obama’s approval level on Israel policy and Jewish Americans' sunnier view of the overall US-Israel relationship, with 63 percent characterizing it as either very or somewhat positive.
“It’s like going to a restaurant and saying ‘I love the food, but I don’t like the chef,'” he said. “That places in stark relief a communications and messaging problem.”
Brooks, however, disagreed. “I don't think they have a messaging problem; they have a policy problem, and that's what the campaigns are going to be about,” he said.
The RJC has emphasized the Obama administration’s willingness to make public its differences with the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over settlements and peace talks.
Democrats, for their part, have stepped up their efforts to reach out to Jewish voters, especially in the wake of their loss in a special congressional election earlier this month in a New York district that is both heavily Jewish and a traditional Democratic stronghold.
Meanwhile, American Jews' approval of Netanyahu's handling of the US-Israel relationship dropped, too, to 54 percent approving and 32 percent disapproving, from 62 percent approving and 27 percent disapproving last year.
The Synovate-run poll, which surveyed 800 Jewish respondents by phone between September 6 and September 21, came before Obama delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly in which he strongly defended Israeli security needs. He noted the violence Israel has faced from its neighbors and referred to Israel as the Jewish people's "historic homeland."
While Obama's approval ratings have taken a nosedive, the survey does not show very high levels of Jewish support for any of the leading Republicans hoping to challenge him in 2012. Presented with hypothetical match-ups of Obama against various Republican candidates, respondents favored Obama.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who is perceived as the most moderate of the top Republican contenders, performed the best against Obama. Romney garnered the backing of 32 percent of respondents, as opposed to the president's 50 percent. The remainder of the respondents either said they favored neither candidate or were not sure.
Texas Governor Rick Perry earned the favor of 25 percent of respondents to Obama's 55 percent, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was supported by 19 percent to the president's 59 percent. By way of comparison, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) earned 22 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential race.
Perry and Bachmann are in a fierce competition for the approval of the Republican Party's more conservative wing, and the AJC's Harris said the survey's findings offer a lesson for Republicans hoping to peel off Jewish voters from the Democratic Party.
"For the Republicans, the message is you could win more votes in 2012, but it's not a given, and there is a quite a spread between the candidate viewed as most moderate and the ones who are more conservative," Harris said.
Brooks had a different view, saying that Perry’s lower numbers were a result of his not yet being a known quantity among American Jews. “Rick Perry has been in the race about a month at this point, so a lot of people have not got to know him,” Brooks said.
The big chunks of undecided respondents in the match-ups suggest a lesson for Democrats as well, the AJC’s Harris said. "You still have the solid support of many Jewish voters, but don't take it for granted," he said. "You have to make your case better than you have until now."
With the exceptions of three questions about Obama's handling of immigration, energy and the economy, the AJC's survey did not cover domestic affairs. Instead it focused largely on Israel, Iran and other international issues.
Respondents struck a pessimistic notes on America's two foreign wars, with 46 percent saying the United States is losing the war in Iraq, as opposed to 38 percent who said it is winning, while 61 percent said it is losing in Afghanistan, and only 26 percent felt it is winning.
Asked about Palestinians' pursuit of statehood recognition absent talks with Israel, 88 percent of respondents said they were opposed. Seventy-three percent of respondents supported pulling US aid from the Palestinian Authority if it enters a unity government with Hamas. A nearly unanimous 96 percent said the Palestinians should have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any final peace agreement.
Opinions were roughly evenly divided on the Obama administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, with 43 percent signaling approval and 45 percent saying they disapproved. Seventy-one percent said they thought there was either little or no chance that sanctions or diplomacy could stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If diplomacy and sanctions fail, 56 percent said they would support American military action to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and 68 percent said they would back Israeli action.
Regarding party affiliation, 45 percent of respondents said they were Democrats, 16 percent said they were Republicans and 38 percent said they were independents. Religious affiliation broke down as follows: 29 percent Reform, 22 percent Conservative, 9 percent Orthodox, 1 percent Reconstructionist and 37 percent “just Jewish.”
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