At the White House

Posted on May 30, 2012


Today, I had the honor of sitting across the table from the President of the United States in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. President Barack Obama and his Chief of Staff, Jacob Lew, wanted to meet with Conservative Jewish leaders from around the country. Our group—which numbered about 20—wanted to hear them speak directly, and perhaps more candidly than is the case in public, about key issues on our minds.

It’s hard to judge how our hosts felt about the meeting, though it was clear we had their full attention and engagement from start to finish. We, for our part, were pleased with the fact of the meeting, with much of what was said, and with how it was said. There was no clowning, no cheap shots at political opponents, no pretense of easy answers to difficult questions, no demagoguery, not even much preaching to the choir. Speaking for myself, I wished I had the chance to talk regularly like this with the leaders of my country, at my dining room table or theirs. I got the sense that the President and his chief deputy would be open to every hard question I would throw at them—once we got to know each other better—would think about that question a lot, and would give good responses and reasons both when they agreed with me and when they did not. It was a worthwhile hour indeed.

The subjects discussed included Israel, Iran, the economy, immigration, the environment, the recent decision on same-sex marriage. I knew that my colleagues would be covering those issues, and knew too that Obama and Lew would use the meeting to cogently restate the administration’s enduring support for Israel and its position that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. So I devoted my question to something else: the role and special responsibilities of religious leaders in America today.

The President himself had said a few words about this in his opening remarks, and I expected—based on his writings going back to The Audacity of Hope—that he’d have more to say on the subject this afternoon. I reminded him of his writing in that book that he would not let political opponent Alan Keyes claim a monopoly on the teachings of Christianity, which was his faith, too. I said that I had particularly identified with that concept, agreed with him that America remains a profoundly religious country, and asked if there were particular issues that passionate moderates like those in the room needed to emphasize in his view—stewardship of God’s Creation? Protection of human dignity? Tasks that we especially need to perform?

The ground rules of the meeting prohibit direct quotation, and I wanted to keep eye contact with the President rather than take notes on his response, but it is fair to summarize that he answered by stressing that sometimes process is no less important than outcome. Religious leaders need to stress the common good, and teach that we all need to be part of and serve the common weal and not just our own communities. He again stressed, clearly from the heart, the importance of religious communities making a difference in the lives of their members, and also in the lives of members of other groups and our country as a whole. Nothing I had not heard before. Nothing that surprised me—except that it was the old, inspiring Obama that one does not hear as much of on the campaign trail after three-plus years in office as in years past, when both he and the country seemed more prepared to confess idealism.

I did not get the sense that the President has given up on that agenda, or on the peace process, or on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The picture of Teddy Roosevelt’s charging up the hill on one wall may give inspiration. So, too, may Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait on another: he won not just a second term, but a third, and a fourth. It was a good meeting for this President, I think, and for Conservative Jewish leaders. He clearly cares what the Jews of America think of him. This has to be a good thing for us and for Israel; I believe it is also a good thing for America.