President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office were marked by the swift passage of a number of bills promoting domestic causes historically important to Jews as a community.
“These have been the most exciting days in presidential history,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), in a teleconference on Monday.
Citing such recent legislation as the economic recovery package, “providing immediate relief to Americans who have lost their jobs,” and the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding a worker’s right to sue an employer for discrepancies in pay based on gender, Wasserman Schultz said that Obama has spent his first 100 days “ensuring we can begin to implement his vision, and the Democratic vision.”
Noting that many in the Jewish community have long supported a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices, she praised Obama for nominating various “pro-choice leaders to head vital cabinet posts.” She also commended the administration for being instrumental in requiring the FDA to make the Plan B “morning after pill” available over-the-counter to 17-year-olds.
Wasserman Schultz observed that while this administration’s progress on social issues was significant, “the economy is issue one, two and three.”
“By any measure, President Obama’s administration has demonstrated they get it,” she said. “President Obama has made it clear that it’s a high priority to revitalize the housing market.”
Obama’s 100-day approval rating is among the highest of the last nine presidents, being surpassed only by Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, said Mark Mellman, CEO of The Mellman Group, a polling and consulting firm, and a consultant to the Democratic Congressional Leadership.
“Obama’s one of the most popular presidents we’ve had in the post-war period,” Mellman said, noting the president is facing “a very challenging and difficult environment,” and that he is forced to deal with “problems inherited from the Bush administration.”
While polls show that 63 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s job performance thus far, his approval rating among American Jews is 73 percent.
Mellman said that Obama has moved quickly to try to fix the troubled economy, and that while typically, “action begets opposition, that really hasn’t happened here. The president remains extraordinarily popular.”
According to polls, the word most commonly used to describe Obama in 2008 was “inexperienced,” but he is now most often described as “good,” “great” or “intelligent,” Mellman said.
Moreover, while only between 13 to 15 percent of Americans polled before Obama was elected thought the country was headed in the right direction, that number has more than tripled in the president’s first 100 days.
“The reality is that people are happy with the choice they made,” Mellman said.
From the perspective of the Jewish community, Obama’s domestic progress in the first 100 days has been impressive, said Hadar Susskind, vice president and Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“The core of what this administration has accomplished and has been working on has been domestic,” said Susskind, adding that movement toward progress in the Middle East is “on hold because of Israeli politics, and the change in the administration there.”
Susskind said that the Obama administration, in passing the economic recovery act, has made progress on a host of domestic issues that Jewish agencies had seen no movement on in the last eight years.
“The SCHIP legislation [expanding health care coverage for poor or near-poor children] had been vetoed by the Bush administration. It’s now passed and done,” said Susskind. “The Public Lands Protection Act had not been moved through Congress; now, passed and done. The Edward M. Kennedy community service act — passed and done.”
Susskind said that while the three “big ticket items” — health care reform, climate change legislation and immigration reform — are not yet done deals, the administration is working on those issues.
“They’re [the Obama administration] not buying the argument that you can’t deal with more than one thing at a time,” Susskind said. “These are all things that JCPA and the Jewish community have been involved with for a number of years.”
Susskind added that this administration’s outreach to the Jewish community has been “extraordinary.”
While the Bush administration worked with the community on issues such as Israel and Iran, Obama’s administration is reaching out to Jewish leaders on issues such as immigration reform and climate change as well, Susskind said.
“The administration is valuing the impact of the community on a very broad agenda,” he said.
And Jewish agencies are benefiting from the changes Obama is shepherding, said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of UJC/Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.
“On the domestic side of the agenda, our prime concerns are those that have the most impact on the Jewish community, and the programs that we run,” Daroff said. “Because of the economic recession and the focus and the attention of the administration and Congress on the economy, our agencies are speaking the same language of the administration.”
The recession has caused an increase in demand for social services at the same time agencies are experiencing a decrease in funding, Daroff said. The economic stimulus plan has provided welcome relief.
“The highlight has been the passage of the stimulus bill,” Daroff added. “Billions of dollars are going to those most vulnerable. One billion dollars is going to Jewish social services through Medicaid alone.”
Daroff said he expected to see “more of the contours and details of comprehensive health care reform” during Obama’s second hundred days.
Another achievement of the Obama administration’s first 100 days, impacting the Jewish community, was the passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, increasing the funds available for national service projects.
“Particularly in a down economy, there is a greater need to get out there and provide service in the community,” Daroff said, adding that the Act will help to increase connectivity between youth and the Jewish community.
While many Jewish organizations seem to be pleased with the movement so far on the domestic front, there are still questions to be answered regarding his foreign policy.
“I would say there is cause for concern,” said Scott Feigelstein, director for the Republican Jewish Coalition of Philadelphia.
“Iran is getting closer and closer to nuclear capability, and there is no firm action on the part of this administration to deter Iran,” Feigelstein said. “Israel’s security and the security of the Middle East and beyond are at stake.”
Feigelstein also expressed concern over the president’s “naiveté” in engaging with outwardly anti-Semitic world leaders such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
“Obama is shaking hands and taking photo ops with dictators and despots,” Feigelstein said. “His waffling on our participation in Durban II conference sent the wrong message to other parts of the world. This is in stark contrast to the prior administration, which showed moral clarity on the issue.”
Additionally, the Obama administration recently asked Congress to make changes in a federal law that would permit aid to continue flowing to Palestinians in the event that Hamas officials became part of a unified Palestinian government, if that government would recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
“That would raise a lot of red flags,” said Susskind. “That would be a big question for a lot of people. Even if Hamas said that, I don’t think anyone is going to believe that. Our stated goal is to get Hamas to renounce violence and engage in the political process. But I don’t buy they’re about to do that.”
While 100 days may be a gauge of Obama’s performance, it is still too early to make a definitive call on his impact on the Jewish community.
“I think 100 days is a significant period of time,” said Daroff. “But it will be a long haul of four or eight years with all sorts of curveballs thrown along the way. While 100 days are seen as a significant indicator of presidential performance, it is certainly not a time to rest on laurels.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at