WASHINGTON — The fight for the Jewish vote in 2012 is expected to be a tough one.
So the Obama campaign is turning to the quintessential insider.
On Aug. 16, the Obama campaign tapped as its Jewish outreach director Ira Forman, the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the co-editor of the 2001 book “Jews in American Politics.”
A former Clinton administration official known for what some say is a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish politics, Forman will be charged with selling a president whose confrontations with the Israeli government have strained his relations with the Jewish community.
“For those who believe that President Obama is in trouble with the Jewish community, Ira Forman is just the right medicine,” said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s chief lobbyist and a former official at the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Democratic insiders readily admit that Forman’s job won’t be easy.
“Ira is going to have a consistently tough road ahead of him,” said a Democratic Hill staffer who insisted on anonymity. “Someone had described this job as a punching bag job, that people are going to be having their screaming fits first before signing-up for team Obama.”
Obama garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 elections, according to exit polls. Currently, Obama’s approval rating among Jews stands at around 60 percent, according to several recent polls. Jewish support for Obama has fallen in proportion to Obama’s declining poll numbers generally.
“I don’t think the administration has articulated the depth and breadth of its support for Israel as well as it needs to,” said former Mel Levine, a former Democratic congressman from California who campaigned for Obama in the Jewish community in 2008 and says he will do so again this election. “Our biggest challenge is to essentially explain the facts and get the record out.”
Forman, a Washington resident who cut his political chops as a legislative liaison at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is expected to play a key role on this front. During his 14-year stint at the National Jewish Democratic Council, he did battle with the Republican Jewish Coalition every election cycle.
“The most seasoned hand-to-hand combat Jewish issues guy out there is Ira,” said Amy Rutkin, a self-described Forman fan who serves as the chief of staff for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Forman’s longtime counterpart at the RJC, however, questioned how much of a difference Forman could make.
“The feelings of the Jewish community are baked in the cake already,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.
From the country’s struggling economy to what he characterized as the president’s perceived unfriendliness toward Israel, Brooks said that “Barack Obama owns it all and not a lot can change” between now and Election Day.
Forman was on vacation as of press time and was not available for comment. An Obama campaign spokesperson said that Forman “will coordinate our outreach to and dialogue with the Jewish community during the campaign with a focus on expanding our grassroots support across the country.”
In 2008, the Obama campaign turned to Middle East expert and former Capitol Hill staffer Daniel Shapiro to serve as its point person for the Jewish community. Today, Shapiro is the U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Since 2008, some observers say that the administration has dropped the ball when it comes to Jewish outreach.
“In the three years of the administration, there’s not been a serious attempt at having a full-time Jewish liaison with connectivity and knowledge of the Jewish community,” said an official with a Jewish community organization who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Susan Sher, the White House’s first Jewish liaison, isn’t closely tied to the Jewish community, and Danielle Borrin, the administration’s current liaison, “has great Jewish know-how and knowledge, but is only in her 20s and has no real influence in the administration,” the official said.
Forman, by contrast, is a veteran of the world of Jewish politics.
“He hits the ground running and doesn’t need to have to figure out who the players are in this crazy game we call politics,” said Susan Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “In the past, not only the Obama campaign, but frequently campaigns have had much more junior people for this role, but Ira is a senior, seasoned operative.”
Forman’s selection did not draw universal praise.
“I just don’t know if he’s someone who can craft a message that will resonate with the average Joe Sixpackowitz,” said a former Democratic Hill staffer who would speak only on background so as not to be seen criticizing the Obama campaign. “I don’t know if he’s the messaging guru” who’s capable of shifting the tides in favor of the president.
The Democrat, who spent a decade on Capitol Hill, said that under Forman’s reign, the NJDC was seen as irrelevant by many lawmakers.
“I never saw the NJDC when he was at the helm having that national role, carrying the Democratic message,” said this person, who worked for a Jewish member of Congress. “If you didn’t do it at the organization, how are you going to do it from the campaign? Obama has a problem on Israel issues, but I don’t know if [Forman] is the guy to combat it.”
Still, Jews don’t vote based solely on Israel. Domestic issues consistently rank higher, research shows.
“The economy is going to be a critical issue across the board to all constituencies,” said former Rep. Levine. “On this, we obviously have our challenges.”
Democrats, however, are hoping that the Republicans will do some of their work for them. They say the current right-leaning Republican presidential field is out of step with Jewish voters on social and other domestic issues.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the Obama campaign needs to highlight the “huge difference” between Democrats and Republicans on social issues. The best defense, Cardin said, is a strong offense.
Forman will need to “be out there in an affirmative way,” Cardin said. The campaign needs “someone to go after the Jewish vote, not just defend the Jewish vote. To sit back and be defensive will be the wrong strategy.”
“This is going to be a very competitive campaign within the Jewish community, and the Obama administration is making a wise political judgment to put someone like Ira Forman in the forefront,” Cardin said. “He knows what the Republicans will be throwing at him.”