News Analysis: Obama's Address Misses Key Jewish Priorities

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published January 26, 2011.
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Civility? Check. Clean energy? Check. Health care? Check. Immigration? Check. Education? You bet.

Isolating Iran? That’s in there.

Poverty, guns, reproductive rights? Israel? Ummm …

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was as notable for what it excluded as what made it in.

Obama abjured the traditional checklist and delivered a speech centered on a grand theme, American renewal, after an election that left government splintered, with a Democratic White House and Senate and a Republican House of Representatives.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” the president said. “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics.”

That was a recipe for stirring rhetoric, but it left out the manna for groups that watch the speech to cheer on their special interests.

“What NCJW missed?” the National Council of Jewish Women tweeted on the Internet within seconds of the speech’s conclusion. “Mention of poor, middle class, reproductive rights, gun violence prevention – to name some.”

The absences were telling. Obama focused on areas where he might persuade the Republican-controlled House to join him. The missing pieces all portend clashes with the Repiublicans: There are increased demands to tighten regulations of automatic weapons in the wake of the shooting earlier this month in Tucson. Democrats want Obama to push back against a national Republican campaign to further restrict abortion rights. House Republicans have vowed to slash funding to the Palestinian Authority, a key element of Obama’s efforts to prop up moderates in the region.

Instead, Obama used the speech to emphasize bipartisan consensus issues, some of which are Jewish community priorities, too. He outlined a plan to boost education, including preparing 100,000 new teachers of science and technology and making a $10,000 tuition tax credit permanent. He called for 80 percent of electricity to be powered by “clean energy” by 2035 and for a million electric vehicles to be on the roads by 2015.

Obama did not entirely leave out liberal causes. He offered some compromise with the Republicans on health care, but he vowed to leave in place the coverage guarantees for people with preconditions, which became law with last year’s reform bill. Obama also pledged to revive his effort, failed in the last Congress, to create paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

He noted the success – spearheaded by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) – in the final hours of the last Congress repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule that kept gays from serving openly in the military.

Troops, he said, are “Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

The slew of brief Jewish organizational news releases late Tuesday and early Wednesday were reduced to praising the speech’s general tone. What they’re really waiting for are the details of the president’s budget, to be released at the beginning of February. The Jewish Federations of North America pleaded for special consideration for needs for the elderly.

“President Obama is right when he says we must be cautious of the deficit,” the Jewish Federations’ Washington director, William Daroff, said in a statement. “But there are certain social services that must be preserved now more than ever. Creating more crises for our seniors and poor is not the way to stop the crisis facing our nation.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs sought to highlight the issue of poverty.

“With the President’s budget forthcoming, we are anxious to see that he follows through on his call not to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable,” the public policy umbrella group said in a statement. “President Obama must listen to his own advice and avoid a hatchet where a scalpel is called for.”

Obama reassured Americans that he would not touch Social Security except to “strengthen” it, which got him plaudits from B’nai B’rith International.

“The benefits to seniors are modest in the big picture, but a lifeline for too many individuals, and we must continue to provide benefits at fair levels,” B’nai B’rith said. “An across-the-board domestic spending freeze could have devastating results for many of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center set up a checklist on its website to comment on 10 signature issues as they came up in the speech. On at least five of them, including Israel, gun control and Gulf Coast recovery, the RAC ended up regurgitating its past statements because they did not get a mention.

Israel was missing in his speech, but Obama noted his success in an area that pro-Israel groups consider key: isolating Iran.

“Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wanted to know what he planned to do going forward – and wondered why he didn’t mention other threats in the region.

“The President also did not mention the threat posed by Iran and Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism and efforts to undermine its neighbors, on the very day that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis took a severe step to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” she said in a statement.

Obama started by noting perhaps the most poignant element of the evening: The empty seat of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), recovering from being shot in the head in the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting that left six dead.

“As we mark this occasion, we are also mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords,” Obama said.

TV stations cut later to a photo of Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, holding her hand in her Houston hospital room.

Marking the civil tone, lawmakers wore black and white ribbons, traditionally used to protest gun violence and in this case designated for the victims of the Tucson shooting.

Republicans and Democrats also sat together. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who since his freshman year in Congress in 1989 has arrived early to secure an aisle-side seat so he can be among the first to shake hands with the president, partnered this year with Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio.), who adopted the same habit in her freshman year, 2005.

The long hours spent watching out for their seats on the House floor have made the two buddies, despite ideological differences.

“In the wake of Tucson, and all the incivility, we want to make the place more civil, and we’ll be heated and passionate about it,” Engel told JTA before the speech.

Schmidt, grabbing Obama on his way out, made sure he signed her program for the evening and added: “Eliot needs one too! It’s bipartisan!”






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