Washington — Speculation about the members of President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet and other senior staff has drawn headlines — but there’s also no shortage of interest in who will be the next presidential representative to the American Jewish community, or in how much influence that person will have in a White House chock-full of well-known Jews.
No shortage of candidates, either.
“It’s unbelievable to me how many people are interested in this job. From people who had no relationship with the campaign and don’t know the Jewish community, to people who are grossly overqualified,” Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz said.
Serving as an aide to the president, the Jewish liaison is the president’s eyes, ears and voice in the Jewish community in the White House Office of Public Liaison, which serves as the communications hub with states and cities as well as with ethnic, religious and demographic groups, from veterans to senior citizens.
The liaison is responsible for conveying to top White House officials Jewish people’s views on issues from Middle East policy to trade, and for explaining positions and building support in the Jewish community for administration positions, including those that may not be popular. And sometimes, depending on an administration’s sensitivities, the liaison is responsible for explaining the reason that Jews might be sensitive to a particular issue.
Such a task fell to Marshall Breger, who, as Ronald Reagan’s Jewish liaison, had to explain to then-White House chief of staff Donald Regan anger from Jews over the president’s 1985 visit to a Bitburg, West Germany, cemetery that included the graves of Nazi-SS soldiers.
“It’s important that there be a Jewish liaison, because I think it’s important that there be a continual and open communication with the Jewish community,” said Breger, considered by many to be the granddaddy of Jewish liaisons.
“It would be quite important to have that person be empowered to sit in on sufficiently important meetings to make sure the policymakers understand the concerns of the Jewish community.” Breger, now a professor at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, was given the elevated status of being a special assistant to the president, and he met regularly with the president and with secretaries of defense and state and with the national security adviser.
Not all Breger’s successors had that much access. With a couple of exceptions, the position has been a relatively junior one in the Bush administration, which has had seven liaisons in eight years compared with nearly half that number during the Clinton administration.
The position was more senior in the Reagan and Clinton White Houses. Reagan had relatively few connections with Jewish leaders, and communal leaders say that his staff recognized the need for somebody with strong contacts in the Jewish community. Outreach to nearly every distinct ethnic, religious or demographic group, from seniors to African Americans to Jews, was expanded in Clinton’s public liaison office.
“Every organization that wanted to try to have an impact and an influence knew they had a point of contact,” Clinton Jewish liaison Jeanne Ellinport said.
How influential the position will be remains a key question, particularly with such prominent Jews working in the White House: incoming chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; David Axelrod, an Obama strategist, and Ron Klain, Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff.
Among those said to be in the running for the liaison job are Eric Lynn, an Obama foreign policy adviser and Obama’s No. 2 Jewish coordinator during the campaign; Josh Kram, who was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Jewish coordinator and later organized Obama’s Jewish efforts in Virginia; U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler’s former foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, who led Obama’s Jewish efforts in Florida; Mira Kogen Resnick, who is the legislative director for U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, a Florida Democrat, and reportedly has strong ties to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, and Amtrak deputy general counsel Jonathan Meyer, former Senate counsel to Biden.
A decision is not likely to be made public for several weeks. Candidates either declined to discuss the position, for fear of hurting their chances, or could not be reached for comment.
Lynn is working on public liaison and Middle East policy issues during the transition, though several Democratic veterans said that does not guarantee he has the inside track for the job.
Dan Shapiro, who, as Obama’s top Jewish coordinator in the campaign, was Lynn’s boss, is working on foreign policy issues during the transition; according to several Democrats and Jewish representatives, he may join the administration but is unlikely to take the liaison position.
Regardless of their party or administration affiliation, past liaisons agreed that there’s a misconception by many people outside the White House that the liaison is their voice in the administration. “It’s not the Jewish community’s liaison to the White House, it’s the White House liaison to the Jewish community,” said Jeffrey Berkowitz, a former Bush liaison.
There’s a critical distinction, agreed Clinton liaison Jay Footlik, who said it’s the liaison’s job to build support within the community for the president’s position on issues ranging from trade and immigration to Middle East policy. Sometimes, that message is unpopular.
Former liaisons also agreed on advice for the next liaison: Listen. “Don’t go out there and do a lot of speaking when you get the job,” Footlik said. “Go out and do as much listening as possible. The liaison will likely be a lot younger and a lot less knowledgeable than the communal leaders he or she will be meeting with.”