After election, Jewish focus on budget, social programs until Iran flares

The week after the election looks a lot like the week before for President Barack Obama, particularly in areas that have attracted the attention of Jewish voters: tussling with Republicans domestically on the economy and health care, and dancing gingerly with Israel around the issue of a nuclear Iran.

With Obama’s victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Senate remaining in the hands of Democrats and the House of Representatives staying Republican, that means more of the same, said William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Heading off deep cuts to social programs is a priority Jewish groups share with President Obama, shown at Camp David on Oct. 21. photo/jta-white house-pete souza

The advantage, Daroff said, is that the sides get back to work, and straightaway. “There’s not going to be a delay in everyone feeling out their new roles and figuring out what color the rug in the Oval Office should be,” he said.

Jewish federations and other Jewish social welfare organizations have said their immediate focus will be the “fiscal cliff” — the effort to head off sequestration, the congressional mandate to slash the budget across the board at the start of 2013.

“Our concern continues to be that as the nation and our political leaders continue to assess how to make cuts in spending, that those cuts don’t fall disproportionately on vulnerable populations that rely upon social service agencies that depend on our funding,” Daroff said.

Cuts of about 8.5 percent would immediately affect the viability of housing for the elderly, according to officials at B’nai B’rith International, which runs a network of homes. Officials at Jewish federations say the cuts also would curb the meals and transportation for the elderly they provide with assistance from federal programs.

Obama and Congress would have had to deal with heading off sequestration in any case, but as a president with a veto-wielding mandate of four more years, he has the leverage to head off deep cuts to programs that his top officials have said remain essential, including food assistance to the poor and medical entitlements for the poor and elderly.

On those two issues, Obama and Senate Democrats have the backing of an array of Jewish groups led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s public policy umbrella.

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Obama’s priorities would be domestic.

“While a victory in the second term tends to give you some political capital, capital is still finite,” he said, citing George W. Bush’s failure in 2005 to reform Social Security, despite his decisive 2004 win. “This suggests to me the president will keep his focus on the economy and health

care,” and not on major initiatives in the Middle East.

Additionally, Jewish advocacy organizations will look to Obama to appoint Supreme Court justices likely to uphold the protections favored by much of the Jewish community, including abortion rights, women’s equal pay guarantees and gay marriage gains in the states.

The exception will be Orthodox groups, which generally align with conservative Christians on social issues.

The potential for domestic tension between some Jewish groups and the new Obama administration — and its Democratic allies who continue to lead the Senate — lies in Democrats’ plans to let lapse some of the tax cuts passed by the Bush administration.

Senate Democrats in recent years have pressed organized Jewish groups to advocate for raising revenue through tax increases. Some groups have supported the increases, but the major social welfare policy umbrella, the JFNA, has resisted in part because tax hikes are controversial among a substantial portion of the federations’ donor base.

Daroff said Jewish federations would continue to push for keeping the tax-deduction rate for charitable giving at 35 percent and resist Obama administration proposals to cut it to 28 percent.

“We see from the response to Hurricane Sandy how vital charities are,” he said. “To put stumbling blocks in the way of our ability to raise charitable funds is the absolutely wrong policy.”

Obama’s most vexing foreign policy issue — how to deal with Iran — has gained some breathing room in recent weeks, with the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arriving at an agreement that Iran will not be poised to manufacture a nuclear weapon until the spring at the earliest.

Without intimations by Israel that it might strike before then, Obama has a window to see if the tightened international and U.S. sanctions introduced during his administration will goad the Iranians into making their nuclear program more transparent.

Makovsky said he expected a quick return to talks with Iran, which could lead to bold new proposals, setting some of the bottom lines that have been eagerly sought by Israel.

“I would predict there will be much more of a focus on bottom lines, there will be some sort of an American offer — after consultations with Israel,” Makovsky said.

A key personnel change will affect Israel-U.S. relations in the coming months. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has longstanding relationships with much of the Israeli leadership, has said she is certain to quit, and there is much speculation about her successor.

Three names have been touted: Tom Donilon, the national security adviser; Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations; and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Of the three, only Donilon has warm relations with his Israeli interlocutors. Rice has steadfastly defended Israel against formal condemnation at the United Nations, but Israeli and pro-Israel officials have been galled by the tough language she has used to describe Israeli settlement expansion. And Kerry raised some eyebrows with his sharp language about Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip following the 2009 war with Hamas.