Protests encapsulate progressive angst that could imperil Biden’s 2024 campaign

Nov 17, 2023, 6:30 AM | Updated: Nov 30, 2023, 5:26 pm

FILE - President Joe Biden meets with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo in the Oval Office of the W...

FILE - President Joe Biden meets with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo in the Oval Office of the White House, Nov. 13, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

(CNN) — Israel could not have asked for a better friend than President Joe Biden.

In the anguished aftermath of the horror unleashed by Hamas on October 7, Biden grieved with Israelis as though he was one of them. As global anger mounted at the thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza during Israel’s counter-attack against Hamas, Biden has been unequivocal on the Jewish state’s right to hit back.

But rising anger and splits inside the Democratic Party over the ferocity of Israel’s incursion into Gaza and the lack of a ceasefire are creating a volatile political mood inside the United States. Dissent and restiveness among younger voters, and Arab Americans especially, appears to be increasing political risk for Biden on the cusp of the election year. Those divides threaten to exacerbate his weaknesses within his own party, which may pose the biggest risk to his hopes of a second term.

Related: Nearly half of Democrats disapprove of Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, AP-NORC poll shows

Biden’s delicate political position has seen him tread a fine line. He pushed back at suggestions by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would somehow control Gaza after the war. He also said this week that hospitals “must be protected” in the Hamas-ruled enclave. And on Wednesday, he suggested violence in the Middle East would only end with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Domestically, the president has also unveiled a strategy to tackle Islamophobia, amid concerns among some Democrats he could be vulnerable to losing support of Muslim Americans, especially in the critical swing state of Michigan in next year’s election. Amid an unprecedented upsurge of antisemitic incidents in the United States, especially on college campuses, the president also directed his administration to protect Jewish Americans.

But the longer the civilian carnage plays out in Gaza and as anger mounts among activists on the American left, questions will arise over Biden’s capacity to sustain his bedrock support for Israel’s military action. Senior administration officials have repeatedly denied that any part of Biden’s calculations on Israel are rooted in domestic politics. But Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that progressive anger over the war “has a potential” to hurt Biden politically. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told CNN last week that the White House position on the Gaza war was also a problem for Biden among younger voters on whom Democrats often depend to drive up turnout. “I think it’s significant,” the New York Democrat said. “Young people have been paying attention to this issue.”

The issue is especially acute given the president’s weak political standing overall, as his reelection race heats up with polls showing that he’s shedding support from critical elements of the Democratic coalition.

New polling finds a rising share of the American public disapproving of Israel’s military response to the Hamas terrorist attack – especially Democrats and younger Americans. In the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, for example, 38% of Americans say Israel’s military response to the attack by Hamas has been “too much,” up from 26% in an October survey. More than half of Democrats feel that way and as do about half of voters under age 45.

For now, Biden is showing no public sign that he’s feeling political heat. As recently as Wednesday, for instance, he defended Israel’s right to move on al-Shifa hospital in Gaza – an act that attracted broad criticism from around the world, including from progressives and young Democratic voters upset with America’s support for Israel. The Israeli government said the hospital was the site of an underground command center for Hamas and has released a photo and video of an alleged “operational tunnel shaft,” which Hamas has denied as “baseless lies.” CNN cannot verify either side’s claims.

“You have a circumstance where the first war crime is being committed by Hamas by having their headquarters, their military, hidden under a hospital. And that’s a fact; that’s what’s happened,” Biden said in San Francisco. The administration gave more cover to Israel by saying it had its own independent intelligence about how Hamas used the building, though Biden refused to say what it was. Three people familiar with the assessment told CNN Thursday that it was primarily signals intelligence, including intercepted conversations among the militants.

Biden’s longtime support for Israel may now hurt him politically

Biden’s steadfastness on behalf of Israel is consistent with decades of support as a senator, vice president and now as president, albeit tested by periodic political differences with some Israeli governments, including an estrangement with Netanyahu that endured until a few months ago.

While the US had been Israel’s strongest supporter during its latest ordeal, American interests and Biden’s political imperatives are not directly aligned with those of Israel. Last week, for instance, the White House got stark warnings from US diplomats in the Arab world that the US was “losing Arab publics for a generation,” according to a diplomatic cable obtained by CNN.

Domestically, meanwhile, the reaction to the war in Gaza has served to reveal already wide ideological splits inside the Democratic Party and the coalition on which Biden is relying to try to carry him to reelection next year. Large numbers of younger voters are showing greater support for the Palestinians than has been typical in the United States, following harrowing video footage of civilian casualties caused by relentless bombing by Israel. Protests have rocked university campuses, where there’s been an outbreak of anti-Israel feeling that has sometimes crossed into blatant antisemitism. On the left, the plight of Palestinians has also become a vessel for frustration among progressive activists and an organizing point for left-wing politics.

In the most graphic sign of the dissent Wednesday, a protest demanding a ceasefire in Gaza – for which Biden has refused to call – saw clashes between demonstrators and police outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and other senior Democratic leaders were inside at the time.

The unrest offered Republicans, who are constantly criticized for insufficiently condemning mob violence in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, a chance to claim that Democrats represented a lawless fringe. Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, a vocal supporter of ex-President Donald Trump, wrote on X that “the Democrat Party has fostered an antisemitic, pro-terrorist faction within their own party.”

Protests also broke out on Thursday in California on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit being hosted by Biden, when a line of cars shut down the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.

While some of the protests have been eye-catching, they pale so far in comparison to the size and intensity of other demonstrations in recent years, including those of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, the activism during the Occupy Wall Street movement or street marches against the Iraq War. The scuffles at the DNC on Wednesday evening, while serious, also followed peaceful pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Washington in recent weeks that drew tens of thousands of protesters.

Another factor that could shape a volatile election year

Still, the political repercussions of the war in Israel, and the way they are tearing at already evident divides on the left especially, could have an outsize impact in a close election year.

The desertion of relatively small numbers of Arab American voters in Michigan, for instance, could be decisive in a close race between Biden and the possible GOP nominee, Trump. And any further dampening of voter enthusiasm among young voters who already have questions about Biden’s advanced age and are now frustrated by his position in the Middle East could hurt the president elsewhere. CNN’s Jeff Zeleny this week uncovered significant skepticism toward Biden among young voters in Georgia, where the president won the cohort by 13 points in 2020 but now essentially splits them with Trump, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.

The White House response to a recent round of coverage of Biden’s political liabilities has been to argue that once there is a direct comparison with Trump, if he becomes the GOP nominee, regular political patterns will reassert themselves. Biden supporters also note the stronger-than-expected showing of Democratic candidates and causes in off-year elections this month, including in state legislative races in Virginia and in a key abortion rights referendum in Ohio.

But the danger for Biden may not be that younger voters switch to Trump, but that many simply don’t tune into the election at all. That carries a risk for Democrats down the ballot, too, with the party facing a challenging Senate landscape next year, especially for vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in red states.

On one hand, it’s crass to ponder political considerations while so many people are dying, captive and grief-stricken in the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis alike have a desperate need for the violence to end.

But at the same time, the US presidency carries its own huge stakes in an election next year that will reverberate around the world. As a matter of politics, as well as humanity, Biden also needs peace to come as soon as possible.

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Protests encapsulate progressive angst that could imperil Biden’s 2024 campaign