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Jews Co​ncerned About the Economy; Candidates Begin to Trim Their Messages

October 8, 2008 By:
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Can politicians save Wall Street and keep their jobs?

While the two presidential candidates have based their pitches to the Jewish community largely around Israel and foreign policy issues, the American Jewish Committee's annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion shows that the paramount issue among Jews is exactly the same as it is for Americans in general: namely, the faltering economy.

"A couple of months ago Iraq was the top issue, now it's the economy," said 63-year-old Spencer Lempert, a lawyer from Elkins Park who attended Barack Obama's Oct. 3 speech on the economy in Abington. "I am very worried that we will wind up in the next Great Depression."

According to the survey, 54 percent of American Jews listed the economy as their No. 1 concern. The next closest issue was health care, at 11 percent. Just 3 percent of respondents listed Israel as their top concern.

While both Obama and John McCain voted in favor of the federal bailout package, each is working to use the issue to his advantage by bringing particular focus to the American workforce and claiming that the policies espoused by his opponent would lead to a slashing of jobs.

So far, polls show that the issue has helped Obama far more than McCain. Several weeks ago, before the latest crisis began in earnest, national polls had the two candidates running largely neck and neck. But now Obama is polling much better in several key battleground states, including Michigan, which the McCain campaign all but conceded last week.

This development raises the possibility that the McCain campaign will double its efforts in Pennsylvania, where Obama's lead has also increased over the past two weeks. According to news reports, the McCain campaign will try to shift attention from the economy and make the election a referendum on Obama.

"It seems pretty clear right now that Obama's numbers are heading in the right direction," said Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion.

Speaking in front of 6,000 people at Abington High School's Schwarzman Stadium -- named for Wall Street giant Stephen A. Schwarzman -- Obama sounded the message that the fiscal policies of the Bush administration had hurt proverbial Main Street and the typical American worker. His remarks came the same day that Bush signed the economic package into law.

"We need to do what we did in the 1990s, and make sure that people's incomes are going up and not down. We need to do what a guy named Bill Clinton did in the 1990s," said Obama. (During the bruising primary battle, it was often Hillary Clinton who cited her husband's successes during the 1990s, while Obama sounded the theme of turning the page on that era of Democratic Party politics.)

In his speech, Obama called for an annual $15 billion government investment in renewable energy sources, describing it as "an investment that will create 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced."

That same day, the McCain campaign released a statement on the economy and the passage of the fiscal legislation. McCain called attention to the fact that he had suspended his campaign for the better part of two days to be part of the negotiations in Washington, an action that, for a time, left it uncertain whether the first presidential debate in Mississippi would take place.

"Washington is still on the wrong track, and we face a stark choice in this election. We can go backwards with job-killing tax hikes, the same old broken partisanship and out-of-control spending as Sen. Obama would have us do or we can bring real reform to Washington," said McCain.

"My focus is to reform Washington and put government back on the side of working families with tax relief, modern job training, energy independence, more affordable health care, and policies that get spending under control," continued the Arizona senator.

The economy has been a top point of contention for Congressional candidates, as well.

U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) was the only candidate from the area who voted against the federal bailout legislation on Sept. 29.

"The measure would have given unprecedented power to the Treasury Department to buy junk mortgage-backed securities and other assets," Gerlach said in a Sept. 29 press release.

The next day, Gerlach's Democratic challenger Bob Roggio -- considered an underdog to unseat the incumbent -- said of his opponent, "I think his action was derelict, and I think he deserves to be fired because he cannot handle the business of America."

Four days later, Gerlach reversed course and voted for the package. He said that the second bill represented a substantial improvement, citing provisions that increased FDIC bank account insurance from $100,000 to $250,000 and "a badly needed patch to the Alternative Minimum Tax."

Borick, the political scientist, said there was no doubt that American public opinion was heavily opposed to using tax dollars to bail out bad mortgage investments, and that, on Sept. 29, voting against the bill was a far- safer maneuver, especially for a lawmaker like Gerlach, who has constantly faced tough races.

Of course, Borick noted that the stock market plunge following the bill's failure in the House did a lot to change minds on the need for the government to take action.

He's not sure if Gerlach's initial opposition to the law will come back to haunt him, but he's certain that it was a call that no lawmaker wanted to have to make so close to Election Day.

"This decision was not a good one for anybody," said Borick. "It is almost like being caught between a rock and a hard place."

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