Analysis

Biden’s campaign expected anger over handling of Gaza war to fade by now. It hasn’t

9 months before election, Democratic party and campaign officials say president’s opposition to a permanent ceasefire until Hamas beaten is irking Black Americans, Muslim activists

File - US President Joe Biden (right) is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
File - US President Joe Biden (right) is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

DEARBORN, Michigan (Reuters) – The depth of Democratic Party anger over US President Joe Biden’s handling of the Gaza war has caught his campaign off guard and could depress support in November’s election, according to Reuters interviews with more than a dozen senior party and campaign officials and five dozen voters and activists.

The White House had expected Democratic unrest over Gaza to fade as Biden picked up his campaigning against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, the officials said.

Nine months before the election, though, the problem is worsening as Biden’s opposition to calling for a permanent ceasefire continues to stir anger in a coalition of voters that propelled his 2020 victory, from Black Americans to Muslim activists in must-win Michigan to young voters, according to the interviews.

Democrats have been broadly divided over Biden’s vocal support of Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks that saw some 1,200 Israelis killed and another 253 kidnapped to Gaza, polls show. Some Jewish Americans, who largely vote for Democrats, have rallied behind Biden, a self-declared Zionist. Many younger Democrats and people of color oppose his approach, disturbed by a rising death toll from Israel’s military offensive in Gaza that tops 29,700, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Crucial parts of Biden’s electoral coalition appear disillusioned, disappointed and angry.

In Michigan’s Democratic nominating contest on Tuesday, Arab-American activists who backed him in 2020 have vowed to withhold their support, urging primary voters to check “uncommitted” at the ballot box in an early litmus test for how Biden’s handling of Gaza could hurt him in the swing state.

Mona Marwari, of Dearborn, calls a voter for the Listen to Michigan uncommitted vote campaign in Detroit, February 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Hoping to address their frustrations, Biden administration officials met on February 8 with Arab-American community leaders in Michigan, and held an additional, previously unreported meeting in the state, said two sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.

Participants were asked not to make details public. Administration officials discussed humanitarian aid for Gaza and noted that Biden was publicly being more critical of Israel, the sources said.

In private conversations, officials have said Biden and some of his closest advisers remained opposed to calling for a permanent ceasefire until the hostages are released and Hamas is defeated, despite internal pressure to change course, one of the sources and three others said.

In response to questions from Reuters, Biden campaign spokesman Seth Schuster said: “The President is working to earn every vote and our campaign will continue engaging directly with voters on a range of issues,” including on “lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The White House in mid-February proposed a temporary ceasefire resolution at the United Nations Security Council, but vetoed a measure calling for a permanent ceasefire. Biden said on Monday he hoped to see a temporary ceasefire to release hostages within a week, although Hamas and Israel appear far apart on talks.

US President Joe Biden talks with Seth Meyers during a taping of the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” February 26, 2024, in New York. (AP/Evan Vucci)

In Wisconsin, another swing state, Democratic activists plan demonstrations over Biden’s stance on Gaza, said Heba Mohammad, a digital organizing director on Biden’s campaign in 2020 who is now organizing protests against him.

Beyond the election battlegrounds, the war has opened a fissure in the base of Democratic Party. Biden’s winning 2020 presidential campaign was buoyed by new voters, Black activists and other progressive Democrats. Those groups flooded social media, manned phone banks and knocked on doors during the pandemic to flip Rust Belt states that Trump had won in 2016, sometimes by narrow margins.

Some Black Americans have expressed solidarity with Palestinians and see their cause as a reflection of their own experience of oppression. Some Gen Z and millennial Democratic voters, who voted for Biden in record numbers in 2020, see the Gaza war as evidence their voice isn’t being heard in Washington.

While none of the five dozen Democrats interviewed by Reuters said they will back Trump, half said they were considering sitting out the election or casting their lot with a third party.

Biden’s campaign has acknowledged the concerns. But it points to evidence of Democratic enthusiasm, such as a recent fundraising windfall. Last week, his campaign and Democratic Party allies said they raised more than $42 million in January and have $130 million cash on hand for a likely contest against Trump.

Republican presidential candidate former US president Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the National Harbor, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, February 24, 2024. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Still, Biden’s campaign has been surprised by the depth of anger and frustration over Israel and other policies, according to about a dozen officials in his campaign, the White House and the Democratic Party. “We are getting hurt more than we anticipated” by Biden’s support for Israel, one senior campaign adviser said.

Mitch Landrieu, the campaign co-chair, acknowledged the issue is “difficult” but said the campaign has time to dispel concerns. “You can expect a very, very aggressive outreach to all voters, young voters particularly, on all of these issues,” he told Reuters during a campaign visit to Flint, Michigan.

“The President – and we’re going to have to follow his lead on this – he has said many, many times, he’s not thinking about this in terms of elections. He’s thinking about this in terms of what the right thing to do is,” Landrieu said.

Underestimating these concerns could be a mistake, some Democratic strategists say.

“It’s really dangerous,” said James Zogby, a founder of the Arab American Institute and a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee. Former Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were both defeated after ignoring warning signs within their own party. “We saw it in 2000, we saw it in 2016,” Zogby said.

‘Knock some sense into this campaign’

In Michigan, the protest vote pushed by Arab American and Muslim political activists threatens to overshadow Tuesday’s primary. Organizers of the “uncommitted” movement are seeking a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and an end to US military aid to Israel in a campaign that has resonated with young voters and people of color from a variety of religions and backgrounds.

The stakes are high. Michigan is home to over 300,000 Arab American and Muslim voters, and had the highest nationwide turnout of young voters, aged 18 to 29, in the 2022 midterm elections. Biden won the state by less than 155,000 votes in 2020.

Emgage Action and Listen to Michigan, groups led by Muslim activists, aim to convince at least 10% of Michigan’s Democratic primary voters to choose “uncommitted,” a symbolically significant margin of about 10,000 votes – about equal to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Trump in Michigan.

Kamau Jawara, of Detroit, calls a voter for the Listen to Michigan uncommitted vote campaign in Detroit, February 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

For some it is personal. “I don’t even know if Biden views my people or my blood as true human blood,” said Abdualrahman Hamad, a Palestinian-American ophthalmologist in Detroit. Hamad said 30 members of his extended family had been killed in Gaza this month. He said he supported Biden in 2020 but has made hundreds of phone calls to convince voters to withhold their votes on Tuesday.

Although Biden has become more critical of Israeli military operations in Gaza as the conflict grinds on, he has stopped short of calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire or blocking funding to Israel, steps that dozens of voters told Reuters were needed to win back their support.

“What I want is for the people around President Biden to knock some sense into this campaign, and tell him that if he does not take a different approach, he will lose key voters here in Michigan that will hand Trump the presidency,” said Abbas Alawieh, a former senior congressional aide who is now a Democratic strategist in Michigan.

‘Betrayed’

Outside Michigan, Black churches and activists are demanding Biden push for a permanent ceasefire. Some, like Celine Mutuyemariya, a Black political organizer in Kentucky, say they feel betrayed.

“When it comes to fighting for his constituents, the constituencies that put him in office in 2020, he has completely abandoned us,” she said.

Mutuyemariya said she voted for Biden in 2020 and convinced others to support him after the March 2020 police killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman whose murder fueled racial justice protests. Mutuyemariya watched again as another Black American – George Floyd – was murdered by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, sparking demands for police accountability.

Kentucky isn’t a swing state, but Mutuyemariya has spent the past four years building Black political power there as a director of the Black Leadership Action Coalition of Kentucky. Short of a ceasefire, Mutuyemariya is unsure whether she will support Biden again. “If he cannot understand the plight of the Palestinian people, he will never be able to understand the plight of Black Americans or Black people in general in the US,” said Mutuyemariya.

Long the most loyal Democratic constituency, Black voters played a large role in sending Biden to the White House in 2020. In return, many expected him to secure federal protections against restrictive local voting laws, police and criminal justice reform and student loan debt relief.

Biden’s efforts on these issues have been blocked or limited by Republicans in Congress. Biden has asked voters to let him “finish this job” with a second term. His campaign says the administration created a wealth boom for Black Americans, achieved the lowest Black unemployment rate in history and cut child poverty to historic lows, while pressing for voting rights, police accountability and health equity.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign rally at Pearson Community Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 4, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

But a dozen Black voters, politicians, advocates and civil rights leaders said Biden’s campaign appears disconnected from voters on Gaza, the economy and other issues.

The Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of more than 150 Black-led organizations, helped organize Black voters in 2020. But this election year, many voters are feeling disillusioned, said Rukia Lumumba, a co-director of its electoral justice project.

“They are disenchanted with the electoral process, the presidential process, just feeling like we are constantly having to choose between two poor examples,” Lumumba said. “We are consistently relied on as a base to keep our democracy alive, or to prevent it from crumbling.”

Disenchanted generations

That disenchantment extends to some Gen Z and millennial Democratic voters, who turned out in record numbers to elect Biden in 2020, according to Reuters interviews with about two dozen Gen Z and millennial voters in swing states and with the leaders of six nationwide grassroots groups.

American millennials and Generation Z accounted for 31% of the 155 million voters in the 2020 election, up from 23% in 2016, Democratic research group Catalist found. Generation Z, those born between 1997-2002, and millennials, born between 1981-1996, favored Biden over Trump by bigger margins than any other group, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Gen-Z for Change, online influencers who went by the name TikTok for Biden in 2020, and the Sunrise Movement, an activist youth climate organization, were among groups that warned the White House in a November letter of problems recruiting volunteers for the 2024 election, blaming “atrocities committed with our tax dollars, with your support” in Gaza.

Gen-Z for Change and the Sunrise Movement never got a response, their spokespeople said. Asked about this, Biden campaign co-chair Landrieu said the president’s campaign was still in the early stages.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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