Commentary — This article was published by Obama’s hometown newspaper shortly after his election as president. It deserves a retrospective read.
Barack Obama: The first Jewish president?
Chicago circle nurtured him all the way to the top
Writer Toni Morrison famously dubbed Bill Clinton “the first black president” — a title he fervently embraced.
Abner Mikva, the Chicago Democratic Party stalwart and former Clinton White House counsel, offers a variation on that theme. “If Clinton was our first black president, then Barack Obama is our first Jewish president,” says Mikva, who was among the first to spot the potential of the skinny young law school graduate with the odd name.
“I use a Yiddish expression, yiddishe neshuma, to describe him,” explains Mikva. “It means a Jewish soul. It’s an expression my mother used. It means a sensitive, sympathetic personality, someone who understands where you are coming from.”
Obama, of course, is a Christian. And his middle name is Hussein. In the presidential election, he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote and about 70 percent of the Arab-American vote, according to unofficial exit polling. Obama collected 52.8 percent of the overall vote.
Putting aside which of the three great Abrahamic religions can lay claim to Obama’s soul, it is clear that his political career, from its South Side inception to the audacious run for the White House, was nurtured and enabled by a close-knit network of Chicago Jews.
Mikva and his friend Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman and Kennedy-era New Frontiersman, were there at the beginning. Minow first heard about Obama in 1988 from his daughter Martha, a professor at Harvard, where Obama was studying law. Minow, senior counsel at Sidley Austin, offered him an internship and later a permanent job at the white-shoe firm, but Obama declined, saying he was planning to go into politics.
When Obama graduated, Mikva, then a U.S. appeals court judge in Washington, tried to lure him with a prestigious clerkship, but Obama turned him down too. That, according to Mikva, took some chutzpah.
Both Mikva and Minow say they sensed back then that Obama was something special. They made a point of staying in touch.
Obama’s circle of Jewish patrons and advisers widened further in 1992 when he became involved in a voter registration drive that brought him into contact with Bettylu Saltzman, a liberal activist (and daughter of the late Philip Klutznick, a former commerce secretary and shopping mall developer). Saltzman says she knew from the moment she met Obama that he would someday be president. She introduced him to David Axelrod, who saw something similar.
Axelrod designed the strategy in which Obama first won the backing of white liberals and then reached out to blacks. Jews made up a significant number of the first constituency.
“As Jews got to know him, they recognized a kindred spirit, not someone who came down from Mars,” Mikva said.
Rabbi Arnold Wolf, of KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue across the street from Obama’s Chicago home, was another early backer. Like Mikva, he sees what he called Obama’s “Jewish side.”
“Obama is from nowhere and everywhere — just like the Jews. He’s black, he’s white, he’s American, he’s Asian, he’s African — and so are we,” Wolf said.
Certainly, Obama is comfortable with Jews, especially Jews from Chicago. Axelrod will remain at his side as senior adviser, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel will be White House chief of staff. Billionaire Penny Pritzker, who has known Obama since the mid-1990s and served as his campaign finance chairwoman, was said to be under consideration for commerce secretary until she took herself out of the running.
But Jews haven’t always been comfortable with him. The once-solid alliance between Jews and blacks that was forged during the civil rights movement has frayed in recent years. During the primary campaign Sen. Hillary Clinton was far more popular among Jewish voters, many of whom were worried about Obama’s close friendships with influential Palestinian thinkers, including his former Hyde Park neighbor Rashid Khalidi, now at Columbia University.
Mikva and Minow recall trying to help candidate Obama reassure skeptical Jewish audiences that he would be a genuine friend to Israel.
“He was frustrated,” Mikva said. “And I remember I told him that it wouldn’t matter if your name was Chaim Weizmann [first president of Israel], there are some Jews who won’t vote for you no matter what you say because they are Republicans.”
Obama jokingly asked if it would make a difference if he called himself Baruch Obama, noting that the Swahili name Barack and the Hebrew Baruch derive from the same linguistic root. Both mean “blessing.”
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama did and said what was necessary to court the Jewish vote. In March he made the pilgrimage to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization. There he pledged unwavering commitment to Israel’s security. In July he traveled to Israel and was photographed with Israeli leaders.
Even without the Jewish vote, Obama would have carried New York, California and Illinois, three key states with large Jewish populations. Florida was a different story.
Obama won Florida. Exit polls suggest the Jewish vote there was in line with the Jewish vote elsewhere.
Having gained the trust of mainstream American Jews, one question now is whether Obama will be the president to finally deliver a decent settlement for the Israelis and Palestinians.
“I think he’s going to try. We’ve had presidents whose hearts were in the right place — Clinton and Carter,” Mikva said. “But Barack Obama really has a way of bringing people together.”
James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington lobby, said Arab-Americans also were optimistic that Obama was uniquely positioned to achieve a breakthrough.
“He gets it. He really gets it,” Zogby said of Obama’s understanding of the core issues. “He believes in reconciling diverse communities.”
Revisit The Great Schlep
Watch Sarah Silverman’s appeal to bubbes for Obama at chicagotribune.com/schlep