Sat. May 18th, 2024

Democrats cast aside worries of campus protests hurting Biden

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May4,2024

Democrats are casting aside worries that college campus protests opposing the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza could spell trouble for President Biden in November.

Biden and his White House aides have mostly opted to keep their distance when it comes to weighing in on escalating tensions on campuses around the country but have called out antisemitic rhetoric that has plagued some of the demonstrations.

Democrats are maintaining that the protesters, composed of the young and progressive voting bloc Biden needs to win a second term, represent a small but loud minority. They say Biden should continue not to engage, despite the group being part of the party coalition, arguing he would risk alienating even more voters by trying to appeal to the protesters. 

Others say his “quiet diplomacy” around the issue could backfire.

“I think where President Biden is right now, currently, is in fact where the majority of the American people are,” Symone Sanders-Townsend, who served as Biden’s press secretary for the 2020 campaign and as Vice President Harris’s spokesperson in the first year of the administration, said last week on MSNBC. 

“The problem is quiet diplomacy does not speak to what we are seeing in terms of the unrest in the streets. And one could argue the campaign should put the president in situations and scenarios where he could maybe speak to a broader audience on this topic specifically,” Sanders continued.

“If you do not do the work to meet them where they are and talk to them about what you are doing and also hear them out, you cannot expect them to understand,” she added.

Increasing outrage over the war in Gaza has been a recurring issue for Biden and his team, most notably at the ballot box where thousands of voters have cast protest votes against Biden in Democratic primaries. He’s also been met with his own protesters at fundraisers and other White House events across the country since October.

The trouble facing Biden with young voters in 2024 is already apparent. A CNN poll published Sunday found him trailing former President Trump by 11 points among voters ages 18-34. More broadly, polling from Emerson College/The Hill showed Trump leading Biden in seven key battleground states.

Biden, as he has done throughout the conflict that broke out last October between Israel and Hamas, has trod carefully around college campus protests, in which students are demanding their universities divest endowments that have ties to Israel.

When the demonstrations on Columbia University’s campus first broke out earlier this month, the White House condemned antisemitism that bubbled up. Biden last week added that he also condemns “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians” when asked about the college protests, attempting to offer a balanced response.

The White House has also condemned the rhetoric used by the student leader of the protests at Columbia, who said in January that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” Meanwhile, Republicans have called on Biden to bring in the National Guard to deal with the college protests, a move that the White House has said isn’t necessary. The administration maintains that handling the situation should be left up to governors.

When protesters on Tuesday took over a building on Columbia’s campus, the White House called the move the wrong approach and condemned demonstrators for disrupting the academic experience of other students.

Despite escalating college demonstrations that have only increased as the week wears on, the White House is sticking with that messaging.

One reason Democrats say they aren’t too concerned about the protests possibly hurting Biden is simply who he is running against.

“I still feel comfortable that at the end of the day, as the president said, he’s an older man, but he’s running against a 6-year-old, and I think that makes a difference,” said former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), referring to a line in Biden’s speech at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ dinner when he took a dig at former President Trump.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), a fervent supporter of Israel, argued the same point on the social platform X, posting, “In 2024, it comes with a tremendous responsibility: turn your back on Biden and you embrace Trump,” in response to an article about Arab Americans in Michigan angry with Biden.

Dearborn, Mich., mayor Abdullah Hammoud hit back on X, suggesting Fetterman not brush off concerns.

“Senator, word of advice: Take your message to the candidates, not the communities whose families are being slaughtered. Arab Americans aren’t on the ballot in November — Biden and Trump are,” he said.

While that contingent of voters is unlikely to vote for Trump, whose policies did few favors for Arab or Muslim Americans, the trouble for Biden will be how many of them sit out the election altogether. 

Crowley avoided comparing today’s protests to that of 1968, saying that unlike the Vietnam War-era protests, it’s unlikely Biden will have to haul in the National Guard — as occurred at Kent State in Ohio — and will instead continue to leave it up to local law enforcement and governments to handle.

“It’s been ugly, but it hasn’t necessarily broken out into all-out violence,” the former House Democratic Caucus chair said.

The building the demonstrators at Columbia took over Tuesday was occupied in a 1968 civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protest. Meanwhile, the clashes between protesters and police on college campuses has sparked concern among Senate Democrats, who are bracing for chaos during the Democrats’ presidential nomination convention in August, which they worry could be reminiscent of the chaotic 1968 convention in Chicago.

The rhetoric from the White House on the college campus protests is more nuanced than Biden’s response to other anti-war demonstrations. When he’s been confronted with and interrupted by protesters during remarks or rallies, the president has responded with empathy toward Palestinians and sometimes engaged with them.

During recent college protests, however, the president and his administration have firmly stated that it’s up to the institutions to manage the situation while also calling out the violent, hateful rhetoric that’s emerged. 

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, described Biden as having “twin goals”: to promote the right to protest while ensuring Jewish students feel safe on campus.

“The position they’ve tried to stake out is a place where they are obviously supportive of the right to protest but also they want Jews to feel safe on campus. And these two things shouldn’t be in opposition to each other. I think they’ve been pretty clear about both,” he said.

John LaBombard, former communications director for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), said the White House’s instinct to first condemn antisemitism during these protests is the right one because the hate-fueled rhetoric emerging from the demonstrations is “not where the vast majority of Americans are.”

“I think what is coming out of these protests on college campuses broadly is out of step with mainstream Americans,” he said. “So, I don’t think the president needs to go out of his way to communicate what he has already communicated, which is that he shares deep concerns with the plight that is facing Palestinians right now, but that he has continued to support Israel.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Democrats cast aside worries of campus protests hurting Biden”
  1. As a concerned citizen, I believe President Biden should take a more proactive stance on addressing the Israel-Hamas conflict and the campus protests. Quiet diplomacy may not be enough to address the unrest and tensions among the youth. It’s crucial for the president to engage with a broader audience on this critical issue to truly connect with the American people.

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