Biden aides grapple with 2024 outreach as Israel-Hamas war exposes cracks in coalition

Originally Published: 05 NOV 23 06:00 ET
Updated: 05 NOV 23 17:03 ET

(CNN) — Top aides to President Joe Biden have embarked on outreach campaigns they hope will help make his handling of the Israel-Hamas war a defining element of his presidency — and his campaign for a second term, particularly if contrasted with likely 2024 rival Donald Trump.

These aides and others who have spoken with the president since Hamas first launched its attack on Israel say Biden sees the conflict and the US response to it as part of the battle for the soul of America, just as he sees his presidency. He has brushed away calls, including from an few inside the West Wing, to consider the potential political liabilities of sticking to his support for Israel.

To others hoping to get him reelected next year, though, it is also the latest example of their claims that he is more in touch with what aides like to call “the quiet majority.”

“I am clear-headed about the two-state solution and the Netanyahu government, but Israel needs support now,” Biden said in a late October meeting with Muslim leaders invited to the White House, two people in the Roosevelt Room recalled.

Jewish voters across the country and in many battleground House districts are shaken. Muslim and Arab American communities are furious. Many younger voters who have come to identify with the Palestinian cause see a president who does not share their values. Feelings of betrayal run throughout.

And Biden’s reelection hopes lie in large part on winning states with large Jewish and Muslim populations, including Michigan and Georgia – two of the four states in which new polling from The New York Times and Siena College shows Trump with an edge over Biden in a hypothetical matchup.

CNN spoke with over two dozen administration officials and other Biden advisers, members of Congress, political operatives and activists on the ground who described both the president’s mindset, how it has evolved and how it fits into the intense Democratic Party dynamics that the war in Israel has sparked.

“I don’t think Joe Biden gives one damn about politics right now,” said Tom Nides, who recently returned from serving as the president’s first ambassador to Israel and has stayed closely in touch with the administration throughout the crisis. “I don’t think he’s thinking ‘out of step’ or ‘in step’ with parts of the Democratic Party.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN that Biden was “not drive by politics.”

“He’s certainly mindful of voices out there who have a different view than he does on things and particular details, and he respects those voices and is doing outreach, but he comes at this decision-making process from a principled place,“ Kirby said.

Biden campaign staffers have been letting government aides take the lead in outreach — an approach to distance Biden’s foreign policy from the campaign. But Biden’s coalition of the like-minded now runs from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has stayed in touch with the White House and gave a tempered floor speech Wednesday that did not call for an outright ceasefire, to Republican kingmaker Ronald Lauder.

“The fact is, that he has done what almost no president has ever done, which is stand firmly behind Israel,” Lauder told CNN in an interview. “President Biden is a mensch.”

And while collaboration at the top levels is so high that Barack Obama previewed his long-written statement on Israel with White House aides to make sure they did not have objections, progressives on Capitol Hill tell CNN the issue has created internal cracks between the leading Israel critics among them and those who feel those critics have gone too far, opening a rare gap between the “squad” and the senator whom Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls Tio Bernie.

One measure of how the issue has become tangled even among some of the most engaged Democrats was on display Friday during a reunion of Obama campaign alumni in Chicago. At a live interview with the “Pod Save America” podcast, Obama’s assertion that “what Hamas did was horrific, and there’s no justification for it” and his condemnation of the long history of antisemitism were met with silence; his remark about how “the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable” was met with cheers and applause.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House chief of staff Jeff Zients have held regular conversations with several senior progressive lawmakers, including a few who have been publicly critical of Biden’s approach. Not on any of the invitation lists: Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, both forceful critics of Israel’s actions.

“He knows the issues. He knows the individuals. He knows what is the right thing to do, and what he believes to be the right thing to do,” said former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff and friend. “That’s what he’s going for as he’s searching for the right solution to the present crisis we’re in.”

Most Democrats in Congress continue to stand with Israel – on a recent Democratic National Committee call, Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss described intraparty Israel critics as “outlier members of the Democratic Party” who “don’t speak for the Democratic Party.” But as discomfort grows, Biden has stepped up his mentions of the toll that war has taken on people in Gaza and domestically – whether invoking “mistakes” made by the US in response to the September 11 attacks or noting during his Oval Office address the “tragic loss of Palestinian life” or joining the calls for a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting after being confronted Wednesday at a fundraiser in Minnesota.

Biden aides say they are paying attention to Democrats’ growing generational divide over backing for Israel, pointing to the support they have provided to combat antisemitic incidents on college campuses. But they are also warily monitoring developments like how the Chinese government-controlled TikTok algorithm just happens to be prioritizing anti-Israel content on the social media platform preferred by many under 30.

“Where this issue is has shifted so much in the last 10 years. Where the Democratic Party is has shifted so much,” said a former Biden White House official who is Muslim. “That’s a new factor this administration has to grapple with.”

Rallying and reassuring shaken Jewish Americans

Biden aides and others involved with internal deliberations over the past few weeks describe a military and diplomatic strategy that may have at times looked like shifts and evolution but actually represented considerations from the outset. Biden’s trip to Israel last month was about solidarity, but also an attempt at buying time to get hostages and civilians out of Gaza. His rhetorical, and then literal, bear hug of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom prior to the conflict he had refused to host in the Oval Office despite nearly 50 years of knowing each other, was about sending a message to opportunistic adversaries that the US deployment of aircraft carriers to the region wasn’t a feint. It was also a way of pinning Netanyahu into allowing aid trucks into Gaza and opening up border crossings.

Likewise, aides say the calls Biden has been personally making to Arab leaders in the region to deliver humanitarian aid and help get American citizens out of Gaza — as well as the meeting with Arab leaders he wanted to have in Jordan as part of his trip to Israel – have not been about shifting strategy in response to domestic blowback, but about responding to a dynamic situation on the ground there.

Biden has done more than just reassure a swath of voters worried about the massive spike in worldwide antisemitic incidents by repeating his story of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir insisting to him during his first year as a senator that the Israelis’ “secret weapon” was that “we have nowhere else to go.” Multiple Jewish leaders across the country and Jewish aides in the West Wing told CNN how much it’s meant to see a president stand up for them amid feelings of being suddenly unsafe and abandoned or of doom-scrolling through social media and seeing posts from friends either downplaying the initial attacks and the burst of antisemitic incidents since or rationalizing them as deserved or inevitable.

Already, several groups focused on Democratic politics around Jewish Americans and Israel told CNN they have seen support for their causes pick up, whether through new activists signing up or new checks from some of the same donors who have split with other organizations over what they see as insufficient condemnation of Hamas and antisemitism. Several groups, including the Jewish Democratic Council of America, have already run ads thanking and supporting the president.

Mark Mellman, the founder of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said his phone has been ringing almost every 10 seconds, whether to look for ways to buck up Biden or to support candidates who have announced primary challenges to the House Democrats who have been less supportive of Israel.

“Pro-Israel Democrats are through the roof. They’re angry, upset, anxious to do something to stop this madness. One thing they can do is try to defeat these few anti-Israel members of Congress,” Mellman said. “Biden could be consolidating some pro-Israel voters in his direction, but also there is a surge in support that goes beyond voting, to carrying the message to friends, contributing, volunteering, going door-to-door, and engaging in other campaign work.”

Mellman and others predicted that next year would see a resurgence of Jewish Americans seeing themselves as single-issue voters on Israel and that they would gravitate toward Biden and aligned Democrats.

Lauder is not sure.

“There’s no such thing as the Jewish vote,” he said. “It’s a year away, so many things can happen. You can’t judge it.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Summer Lee, who’s been critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza, won a primary last year despite pro-Israel groups spending heavily against her. She is one of several Israel critics who has already attracted a primary challenger for next year.

“We have an obligation to speak up for human rights, and we have an obligation to protect defenseless people,” Lee said in an interview, insisting that the primary challenge against her was not because of her position on Israel but “because I am a vocal, progressive Black woman who speaks out against racial injustice, who speaks out against economic injustice and corporate abuse.”

Rushing to catch up on Muslim and Arab American outreach

The other piece of the outreach got off to a slower start, and when it came, the first thing that people on a list of top Muslim and Arab American supporters saw in an email from the White House was a typo adding a letter to the very first word of greeting: “Salaams.” Top White House advisers had to turn to aides like Dilawar Syed, the deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration, who is Pakistani American. As one of the highest-ranking Muslims in the Biden administration, Syed spearheaded several efforts, from holding internal meetings to serving as the official representative sent to the vigil for Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy who was stabbed to death by his family’s landlord because he was Muslim, authorities have said.

People in the White House Roosevelt Room for Biden’s meeting with a small group of Muslim leaders from across the country described a raw, emotional, nearly hourlong session with the president – who several times waved away aides trying to get him to wrap – as he listened to their stories and told them about his own experiences with pain and grief.

A few moments stuck with them, like when Biden hugged one of the crying attendees and said, “It’s going to be OK.”

“It was clear to me he cares a lot. It was clear to me he is using the influence he has to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and now the highest-ranking Muslim elected official in America, told CNN about being at the meeting with the president.

In their own communities and on social media, people are keeping score: how many more days it took Biden to call Al-Fayoume’s family, for example, versus how quickly he called hostages’ families (before Biden’s call, Syed brought to the vigil a letter the president wrote to the family, with a handwritten note sent later); or that the administration’s announcement that it would work on a national strategy against Islamophobia came months after its strategy against antisemitism was finished.

In Minnesota and several other states, leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued ultimatums: If Biden didn’t support a ceasefire by the beginning of last week, he would lose the votes of tens of thousands of Muslims in 2024.

“This is already foregone. Why are we even saying it as if he still has a chance to win back the vote?” Jaylani Hussein, the Minnesota CAIR chapter’s executive director, told CNN in an interview. “Even in Trump’s time, it was not as bad as feeling as helpless about a situation you thought could get better when you voted for Biden.”

Hussein dismissed the idea that the anger will fade before November 2024 if the conflict peters out into a new stalemate. With so many videos of the devastation in circulation online, he predicted, “everybody will remember it like the same day it happened.”

That and the potential for a larger deflation in support among younger voters has Biden campaign operatives more uneasy than they might normally be about the impact of foreign policy in an election a year away.

“We don’t just need people to vote next year, we need them to wait in line for a few hours,” said an experienced Democratic operative worried about the moment becoming a breaking point for many younger voters in a way that the older leaders in the White House and Congress may not be fully attuned to. “We don’t have a huge cushion to let a bunch of people stay home.”

Ellison said more public expressions of sympathy from Biden would help, but he is confident that drawing a contrast with Trump will get the president there.

“I think Muslim Americans know,” Ellison said, “that the alternative is Mr. Muslim Ban.”

This article has been updated with new information.

CNN’s Camila DeChalus and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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