I think those are real and significant differences. I also think there were clearly rough and cold relations between the two countries for at least the first three years of the Obama administration, and I don’t think any fair observer can claim otherwise.
To what do you attribute the administration’s colder attitude toward Israel?
I don’t know. [Political pundit] Peter Beinart argues that Obama didn’t really know a lot about Israel growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, and that his first real education on Israel came from some very liberal Jews in Chicago. That’s one theory.
Another theory is that he came to the White House and thought he was going to reset relations with the whole world. He thought if he was colder toward Israel, the Arab world would be warmer towards us.
In your upcoming book, What Washington Read, Eisenhower Watched, and Obama Tweeted, you write that Obama is unusually well versed in pop culture. Can you elaborate?
He watched a lot of television growing up and continues to watch television to an extent that I think is unusual for a president. “ESPN SportsCenter” is one of his favorite shows. He also likes “The Wire”; “Modern Family,” which he watches with Michelle; “Homeland”; “Boardwalk Empire”; and “Mad Men.” So he does watch a lot of TV.
I’m not a prude about pop culture. But I also think there are great ideas that have created our civilization that our founders were immersed in – great ideas about what leads to good government and the proper role of government in society. I think we as a nation benefited from the founders’ immersion in those ideas, and I think presidents should at least take some time to focus on these issues as well.
Your first book, Intellectuals and the American Presidency, was published in 2002 and hence obviously did not include anything on Obama. If you had to add an Obama chapter to that book, what would be in it?
Well, I effectively did add an Obama chapter. I wrote a long article for National Affairs about Bush and Obama. I argued that Bush tried really hard – he read a great deal – to reach out to intellectuals, but no matter what he did he couldn’t quite get their approval. Obama, on the other hand, doesn’t even seem to try that hard. As I said, he watches a lot of TV and there are some indications that he doesn’t read as much as his fans suggest he does. He was once asked what he was reading and he said he barely has time to floss and watch SportsCenter. Nevertheless, the intellectuals seem to fall all over him and praise him at every opportunity.
You worked in government for 12 years, Jack Lew is currently Obama’s chief of staff, Joseph Lieberman has been a U.S. senator for 24 years…. Are we seeing more Orthodox Jews than ever before in government?
It’s hard to [know for sure], but I think there are more doors open for Orthodox Jews in politics than ever before and you see them appearing in senior positions.
Is that good, bad, significant, insignificant…?
I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s good for the Orthodox community to have its perspectives heard and that people don’t just see Jews as a secular community. I also think it’s good for America. Folding in different voices and perspectives is one of our strengths, so I want to see that continue.
Was your Orthodox observance ever an issue in your years in government?
There were times I couldn’t work because of Shabbat or holidays, but for the most part I found people very accommodating….
When I worked in the White House, I had to be at work at such an early time that I couldn’t daven at home, so I had to daven in the White House with my tefillin. A couple of times people walked in on me, but that’s fine.
So yeah, when you’re an observant Jew, it’s always an issue to some extent in that it’s a daily part of your life, but it was never a deterrent or an obstacle.
Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews generally did not wear yarmulkes at work. Today, most do. What was your practice while working for Bush and Romney?