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Biden bets on the middle with campus protests

President Biden is betting on the middle.

Biden, a centrist Democrat who defeated several more progressive rivals in the 2020 primary, this week offered criticism of the college campus protests engulfing the nation, saying they would not change his policies on Israel’s war in Gaza and would not be protected when they turned violent.

The words were measured. Biden said people had a right to protest, and the president has signaled his unhappiness with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it was also a clear signal that Biden believes the broad middle of the country is behind his approach to the protests, even as Republicans go on the attack by calling him impotent and saying he’s done too little to curtail divisive protests.

Whether it works is another matter.

The national unease has brought back echoes of 1968, when the incumbent Democratic vice president in office, Hubert Humphrey, was defeated by a law-and-order Republican amid campus clashes over war.

Progressives angered by U.S. military support for Israel amid the carnage in Gaza are sure to be unhappy with Biden — perhaps particularly for his statement that the protests will not change his policies.

But Democrats, including progressives, for the most part offered support for Biden’s approach after his remarks Thursday.

“He’s exactly right that we don’t want protests that are violent, and we absolutely will not tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, or any form of bigotry,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has voted against military support for Israel, told CNN.

At the same time, Sanders offered a warning for Biden, alluding to 1968 and saying the protests could be Biden’s Vietnam War.

Sanders suggested Biden change course and rethink his policy in the Middle East.

“I would hope very much that from certainly a policy point of view, from a moral point of view, the president stops giving a blank check to Netanyahu, and I would hope that they understand that from a political point of view, this has not been helpful. Quite the contrary,” the senator said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), while not mentioning the president’ remarks, said on the social platform X, “All our leaders should de-escalate, support nonviolent protestors and free speech, and condemn violence and hatred of all kinds.”

Some progressives took another approach.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Thursday shared a post from Center for American Progress President Patrick Gaspard, who said on X: “I have trespassed in peaceful protest. I have shutdown govt offices in civil disobedience. I have made the powerful uncomfortable in their routines as I’ve dissented in peaceful but committed disorder. Those are the American traditions of Thomas Paine, David Thoreau, Rosa Parks.”

The stakes for Biden are high ahead of an election against former President Donald Trump that is expected to be razor tight.

It is far from clear that Biden can count on progressives and younger voters to back him, even in an election against Trump.

Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official, said Biden’s approach to the protests has been to understand that while he might lose some votes with his remarks, he has the potential to win more with what he said.

“Elections are a game of numbers, so in scenarios like this, he might lose two voters in one place and gain three in another,” Zapien said.

Zapien, echoing other Democrats, also said it was “premature to speculate on the impact this will have on the November elections.”

Biden for much of his presidency has been focused on more moderate voters, who some argue may be turned off by the protests overall.

“When it looks like the country is in chaos visually, it’s bad for Biden. It just so happens that the chaos is at the epicenter of the picture of woke elitism, which happens to be a huge turn off to a large swath of Americans,” said a former Biden 2020 campaign official.

Trump, for his part, is trying to cast Biden as being part of the woke mob, or too weak to battle it. In that context, Biden’s remarks are a pushback to the Trump campaign and Republicans.

The Biden-Trump battle is likely to come down to seven battleground states where a sliver of the electorate could be the difference.

Surveys this week from Emerson College Polling/The Hill show Trump is leading Biden by single digits in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Biden, who has campaigned in all the swing states since March, this week made another trip to North Carolina, and next week is planning to travel to Wisconsin.

Strategists say the danger for Biden is that voters will blame him for chaos in the country that seems reflected in the campus protests.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge to the incumbent is the persistent sense of disorder — on the border, with inflation, crime, geopolitically — and now on college campuses, that is driving voter discontent,” said Bruce Mehlman, a former official under President George W. Bush.

GOP strategist Doug Heye argued that Biden, although he should have spoken out sooner, can even appeal to many college students who also feel like the protests have gone too far.

“I don’t think being clear and consistent and early, which obviously he wasn’t, risks alienating young voters. Chapel Hill is a campus of about 24,000 students,” he said, referring to the University of North Carolina, where protests have also taken place this week.

“We’re talking about a few 100 who were there. So, a few 100 who were protesting in favor of Palestine, then obviously you had some counter protesters … and then you have the overwhelming majority of students on campus who want to go to class, take their exams, go to sporting events, and meet some co-eds,” Heye said.

Some Democrats defended Biden’s approach as a way to distinguish himself from Trump, who Biden argues would plunge the country back into chaos.

“Biden struck the perfect tone with his remarks. Whatever feelings Americans may have about the conflict between Israel and Gaza, there is a way to express those views and a way that crosses a line,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at left-leaning think tank Third Way.

“There is only one person running for president who has condoned and encouraged protesters to smash windows, attack police, and occupy a building and that was Donald Trump on January 6th.”

Source: The Hill

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