When Matt Nosanchuk was appointed associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement for Jewish Outreach last month, the former defense department staffer became the fourth in a series of President Obama’s “Jewish liaisons.” It is a role that goes back officially or unofficially to FDR and Harry Truman.
The Jewish liaison is charged with bringing the community’s concerns and interests to the White House, and communicating the president’s message to the Jewish community. By many accounts, it’s a stressful job, involving much more than setting up the largely showcased White House Chanukah party and Passover seder and giving tours of the West Wing, which may help explain the high turnover rate. Ronald Reagan had four Jewish liaisons during his two terms. George W. Bush had seven.
Jews are one of at least eight “affinity groups” that have received White House attention through designated aides. Those groups include business, labor, consumers, African Americans, women, Hispanics and the elderly.
According to Joseph A. Pika and John A. Maltese, authors of The Politics of the Presidency: “Despite [the] dual purpose [of the liaison], there is little doubt that the office existed primarily to further the president’s wishes rather than those of the interest groups.” So even if we might not be sure that there needs to be a Jewish liaison, the White House certainly does. And with the post so well established, it is not likely that any president will make the mistake of being the first to not have one.
What is important to keep in mind is that the liaison does not give Jews special access to the White House. Rather, the liaison is a channel, shared by other interest groups, all of them deserving. Historically, national Jewish organizations have made the most of the liaison opportunity. Efforts should be made to open the doors for smaller Jewish groups, as well. Quite simply, as long as the position is made available to our community, we should do what we can to maximize the opportunity and its potential benefit.
The White House Jewish liaison position is a reminder that, as much as we like the pipeline to the White House and its potential for access, the White House wants it even more.