Thumbs up for Obama speech


President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night is getting high marks from some Jewish leaders.

"We felt at home in the speech," said Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, noting that the three main pillars of Obama’s agenda — energy, health care and education — are all major priorities of his organziation.

William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of United Jewish Communities’ Washington office, said he particularly liked the focus on "Jewish virtues" such as education and health care — noting that caring for those in need is a pillar of the federation system. And he was glad to see Obama focus on energy at a time when the price of oil was relatively cheap. (Daroff twittered the speech here.)

In addition, "there were admirable nods toward bipartisanship," said Daroff. He also called Obama "Reagan-esque" for the "optimistic and upbeat" attitude he conveyed.

"It was about what we as Americans can do," Daroff said.

"It was the right speech at the right time," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. He noted that the president was laying out a "very ambitious agenda" but that the country has "very serious problems we have to confront."

"It was a powerful statement of his belief" that "government has to be engaged," said Gutow.

Israel was mentioned only briefly, when Obama said that "to seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort." Daroff noted that Israel was one of just four foreign countries mentioned — in addition to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Jewish leaders said that was expected and appropriate, considering that the main focus of the president and the country is the economic situation.

Over at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s blog, associate director Mark Pelavin live-blogged the speech and took questions. His conclusion: "A very, very ambitious speech. Not much on foreign policy (by design), but hit every domestic issue. Did not shy away from anything."

The speech was not officially a State of the Union speech, but had all the traditional trappings of one — including the introduction of "heroes" sitting in the crowd. One of those introduced, bank president Leonard Abess, is a board member of the Greater Miami Federation and an Anti-Defamation League lay leader. Obama noted that Abess sold his share of the bank and gave away $60 million of those proceeds to his 399 employees, as well as 72 people who used to work for him. When asked why, Abess said "I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old.  I didn’t feel right getting the money myself."

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