WASHINGTON (JTA) – When President Obama’s top two advisers spoke Monday to Jewish audiences, the venues they chose and the ground rules they set up played exactly to type.
David Axelrod, one of the brains behind the grass-roots campaign that brought Barack Obama to the White House and a liberal proponent of the president’s pledge for a new kind of politics, spoke to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — a liberal group with its own impressive grass-roots network that embraces talk of a cleaner, friendlier way of doing business in Washington.
His appearance was open to the media, and the genial senior adviser to the president even made time afterward to take a few questions from JTA.
A few hours later Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the rugged political in-fighter who in private can be blunt when saying what’s on his mind, came to the Anti-Defamation League — an organization that’s not afraid to step on toes and speak bluntly if it believes the Jewish people are threatened. Emanuel’s appearance was off the record and closed to the media.
Their audiences and styles may have been different, but they both generally stuck to a similar script — touting the Obama administration’s accomplishments and upcoming agenda while also touching on their Jewish backgrounds.
Emanuel offered a brief speech before spending most of his half-hour taking questions from the 400 delegates at the ADL’s national leadership conference, according to some who were present. They said Emanuel did not provide many details about the Israel-Palestinian issue other than reiterating the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution.
Two conference-goers said Emanuel stressed how important Israel and Jewish values were to his life, noting his family in the Jewish state and how his children attend Jewish day school. (He also told a joke: “What’s the difference between a pit bull and a Jewish mother? The pit bull lets go.”)
Emanuel also discussed the success of the president’s recent trip to Turkey, as well as the administration’s efforts at engagement with the Muslim world. He said Obama would continue to communicate with the Muslim world through overseas trips and diplomacy so that America is seen differently — as a nation willing to use the power of engagement to improve its reputation throughout the world.
"We strengthen America when America’s image is stronger around the world,” Emanuel said, according to an ADL news release. “Our image in the world is different today because of the leadership of the president.”
In response to a question about how the administration would handle immigration reform, attendees said Emanuel stressed the importance of making sure the solution is “comprehensive.” They also said he was forthright in saying there were certain questions about complex issues that he could not or would not answer, such as a query about dealing with Iran.
Earlier in the day, Axelrod offered the 450 delegates at the Reform movement’s Consultation on Conscience a wide-ranging review of the administration’s accomplishments as it nears the 100-day mark — from the “tremendous progress” made by passing the “economic recovery” legislation, to the introduction of initiatives on climate change and health-care reform, to restoring “science to its rightful place in decision-making” with the relaxing of restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.
He said the positive reactions for the president over the weekend from the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela demonstrated that “anti-Americanism isn’t cool anymore” because Obama “hasn’t only engaged the leaders but the people of the world.”
Axelrod also spent time reiterating what Obama said during the campaign and the early days of the administration about the Middle East — that he would be “engaged” and “deeply involved” in the region from the beginning of his presidency.
“We believe strongly in the two-state solution,” he said to applause from the crowd. “We believe that it’s in our interest and Israel’s interest, and the president will continue to push for that.
“We want to see momentum moving forward, not backward. We want to be a positive force.”
In a short interview after his appearance at the Reform event, Axelrod told JTA that a meeting between Obama and new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will happen in the very near future” and that “of course” Obama wants to meet with the new Israeli leader.
As for the controversial views of Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Axelrod said that “obviously we have a different view” on the Palestinian issue and “I think that’s clear and will continue to be clear.”
“These are challenging issues,” he said, and “it’s best if everyone take a deep breath and reflect and think about the path forward.”
Axelrod noted that as the son of an immigrant, he often thinks about his father and how having a “son who works 20 feet from the Oval Office for the first African-American president” is a affirmation of his dad’s fatith.
He said he came to the Reform group as an “ally and friend” and appealed for their help. Axelrod asked the crowd members to “express yourselves when you feel that we’re losing our way but to understand that we’re generally headed in the right direction,” adding that “to the extent that you can rally support for us that would be greatly appreciated.”
After the speech, he noted to JTA that many in the room were likely not only supporters but activists for Obama during the campaign and share a “great sense of investment in the kind of change that” Obama has vowed to bring to America.
“We feel a great kinship” with the Jewish community, he said.