Biden, Obama, Clinton heckled over Gaza war handling at New York fundraiser

Former presidents defend incumbent and presidential candidate from attacks, with Obama saying US leader ‘doesn’t have the luxury’ of making decisions that will please everyone

US President Joe Biden and former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton participate in a fundraising event at Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in New York. (AP/Alex Brandon)
US President Joe Biden and former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton participate in a fundraising event at Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in New York. (AP/Alex Brandon)

NEW YORK (Reuters) — President Joe Biden and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, headlined a star-studded fundraiser with former president Bill Clinton on Thursday, offering a robust defense of the White House’s handling of the Gaza war as protesters interrupted the event.

Biden, who traveled with Obama on Air Force One to New York, took part in a discussion with Clinton moderated by “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert at the iconic Radio City Music Hall in front of thousands of guests. Organizers say the event raised more than $25 million for Biden’s US reelection campaign.

But the fundraiser was punctuated by several protests inside the massive auditorium, with attendees rising at several different moments to shout over the discussion, referencing Biden’s backing of Israel in its war with Hamas.

“Shame on you, Joe Biden!” one yelled.

Obama and Clinton offered a presidential perspective of the Gaza crisis that stressed the political realities of being in the White House.

A president needs to be able to support Israel at the same time as fighting for Palestinians to have more access to food, medical supplies and a future state, they said.

Former US president Barack Obama in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 2, 2022, US President Joe Biden in Brussels on March 24, 2022 and US former president Bill Clinton in Belfast on April 19, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

“It’s a lonely seat,” Obama said. “One of the realities of the presidency is that the world has a lot of joy and beauty, but it also has a lot of tragedy and cruelty.”

People “understandably, oftentimes, want to feel a certain purity in terms of how those decisions are made,” he said. “But a president doesn’t have that luxury.”

When a protester inside the theater interrupted Obama, the former president snapped back: “You can’t just talk and not listen… that’s what the other side does.”

The pair of former presidents also defended Biden’s handling of the economy, which has been getting low ratings in national polls.

Clinton said Biden’s economic numbers have significantly outpaced Trump’s administration.

“I believe in keeping score,” Clinton said. “He’s been good for America” and deserves another term.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrators gather for a “Flood Manhattan for Gaza” rally outside Radio City Music Hall where US President Joe Biden is attending a fundraiser for his re-election campaign, in New York, March 28, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

Before the event, the three leaders’ motorcade passed hundreds of protesters demonstrating against Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, another sign that some young voters and other progressives who voted for Biden in 2020 are furious about his staunch backing of Israel in its response to the October 7 Hamas attacks, in which members of the terror group launched a massive cross-border assault, killing close to 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253, more than half of whom remain in Gaza.

Lizzo, $500,000 tickets

The event included musicians Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Cynthia Erivo and Lea Michele performing. Some high-paying attendees had their pictures taken with the three presidents by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Former president Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican challenger in November’s election, was in the New York area on Thursday as well, attending a wake for a slain New York City policeman.

Biden, 81, has faced concerns about his age and fitness for a second four-year term. Recent Reuters/Ipsos polls show his approval rating at 40 percent and in a tight race with Trump, 77, ahead of the November 5 election.

The support shown by Biden’s predecessors was meant to demonstrate party unity and project fundraising strength.

Tickets for Thursday’s Biden event cost between $250 and $500,000, according to a Democrat familiar with the planning. More than 5,000 people were expected to attend.

Former US president Barack Obama (L) and former US president Bill Clinton (R) cheer for US President Joe Biden during a campaign fundraising event at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on March 28, 2024. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Biden’s high-profile allies are seeking to shore up his support despite opinion polls showing tepid enthusiasm for the president and in contrast to a Republican Party where many major figures oppose Trump.

Biden showed flashes of humor at the event. He referenced former president Harry Truman’s advice that if you wanted a friend in Washington, get a dog. Biden quipped that he got one and it bit a Secret Service agent. The president’s dog, Commander, left the White House last year after a series of biting incidents.

The event closed with each of the men donning aviator sunglasses, Biden’s trademark.

“Dark Brandon is real,” Biden bellowed, referencing a meme about himself.

Trump in Long Island

Earlier on Long Island, east of New York, Trump attended a wake for Jonathan Diller, the policeman who was gunned down during a routine traffic stop earlier this week in the city.

“These things can’t happen. We need law and order,” Trump, surrounded by mourning uniformed officers, told reporters gathered outside a funeral home in Massapequa.

Former US president Donald Trump speaks to the press after attending the wake for New York Police Department (NYPD) Officer Jonathan Diller in Massapequa, Long Island, New York, on March 28, 2024. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

Trump has sought to make supporting police a focal point of his campaign while criticizing law enforcement that targets him.

He faces four criminal trials for his efforts to undermine the 2020 election, his mishandling of classified documents, and his involvement in a “hush money” scheme involving a porn star. He was fined hundreds of millions of dollars for overstating his net worth to lenders. He says he is innocent.

Biden has been routinely outraising Trump and taking in more money than his rival in big donations as well as in small donations under $200. Biden’s reelection effort raised over $53 million in February and $10 million in the 24 hours following his March 7 address to Congress.

Trump aims to raise $33 million in an April 6 fundraiser, a source familiar with the Republican’s plans told Reuters.

A Trump campaign adviser said on Thursday the candidate won’t be able to match Biden’s totals, blaming the disparity on the Democrat’s “billionaire” supporters and painting a picture of a Trump campaign fueled by grassroots, working-class supporters.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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