Biden faces mounting anger from progressives over Israel-Hamas conflict

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President Biden is sinking with progressives over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, a critical and wide-ranging coalition whose tenuous support he will need to rebuild to win the White House again in November.

The president’s Democratic allies and congressional moderates have mostly praised his approach to Israel, to which he and administration officials have expressed unwavering support after an Oct. 7 terrorist attack left 1,400 innocent Israelis dead.

But many on the left have grown increasingly discontent. They’re angry over Biden’s reluctance to call for a ceasefire, citing escalating aggression and deaths in Gaza, and have raised concerns about the party’s foreign policy doctrine toward Palestinian civilians. 

The wedge between the two wings of the party, which further divided both sides last month, has the potential to impact the election as Biden looks to unify Arab Americans, Muslims, and progressive young voters, all of whom have previously shown him support. 

“President Biden has a made a massive miscalculation to align more closely with Netanyahu’s far-right government than a majority of Democratic voters who support a ceasefire and oppose sending more bombs and weapons to the Israeli military,” said Usamah Andrabi, communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive organization that helps recruit and elect the left’s top talent. 

“Biden is barreling us towards another endless war while average voters across the political spectrum are watching the bodies of almost 3,500 Palestinian children pile up at the hands of weapons paid for by their taxpayer dollar,” Andrabi added. “They want no part in the internationally condemned ethnic cleansing campaign of a right-wing foreign government.”

Progressives are condemning Biden now more than in the past. While liberals have pressured him toward more ambitious domestic policies at critical points of his presidency, many elected officials and outside advocates have credited him for governing alongside their flank and championing some of their causes from the executive office. 

That goodwill, however, seems to be fraying substantially as Democrats confront their most contentious international conflict of this election cycle so far. Unlike the administration’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which was embraced by both progressives and centrists, the fault lines are becoming clearer over Gaza as liberals in and out of Capitol Hill step up their criticism of the incumbent president. 

The anger is boiling over in the House in particular. Over a dozen Democrats in the lower chamber have asked Biden to back a resolution that requests an “immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine.” The proposal was signed by the highest profile members of the Squad: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who is of Palestinian heritage, and newer names on the left like Reps. Summer Lee (D-Penn.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.). 

Progressives say the mounting push for a ceasefire shows a disconnect between Biden and activists who see major flaws with his foreign policy posture and humanitarian position abroad — and warn it could translate to negative implications at the ballot box. 

One progressive Democrat making that argument is a candidate challenging Biden for his job as commander-in-chief.  

“There is no question that Biden is further endangering our democracy with his position on Israel,” Cenk Uygur, an anti-establishment media host and Democratic primary rival to Biden, told The Hill on Tuesday.

“Democrats are trying to wish away reality. Biden is definitely going to lose and his stance on Gaza only makes it even more likely,” Uygur said. 

Progressive senators have been less forceful than their counterparts in the House. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a critic of the United States’ military industrial complex who has historically offered sympathy for Palestinians civilians’ cause, upset several of his own allies when he asked for a “humanitarian pause,” a phrase that some felt undermines the seriousness of the ceasefire argument.  

The move puzzled those who supported Sanders’s approach to Israel and Palestine as recently as the last presidential election, when he broke with Biden in saying that aid from the United States to Israel should meet certain human rights standards.  

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has stressed that the Biden administration does not support a ceasefire, rejecting calls from progressives in Congress and some human rights activists the war continues into another week. Other administration officials, including National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, added that they are not currently pursuing the measure — a position that’s further incensed liberals who believe the situation on the ground warrants a chance of course. 

Kirby also said that taking that step would give Hamas more power. 

“We do not believe that a ceasefire is the right answer right now,” he said this week. “We believe that a ceasefire right now benefits Hamas, and Hamas is the only one that would gain from that right now as Israel continues to prosecute their operations against Hamas leadership.”

Biden’s struggles with progressives underscores the broader challenge he faces maintaining the diverse Democratic base he pieced together to beat former President Trump in 2020. Voters from racially different backgrounds — especially non-white blocs — were key to that success.

However, since the Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in last year’s midterms, Biden has seen his fortunes dwindle. He has struggled to maintain enthusiasm with Black and Latino voters, and his standing with young voters remains fragile. More recently, Arab Americans and Muslims haven’t been shy in voicing their disapproval of Biden’s approach to the war.

poll released this week from the Arab American Institute shows the president significantly dropping in support with that demographic. He declined from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent now, an eye-popping figure for Democrats who traditionally rely on their backing. 

In addition, some Jewish progressives also believe that Biden has veered in the wrong direction in his response to Israel’s ground operation in Gaza.

“As progressive Jewish organizers, how are we supposed to mobilize our community to vote for a president who is callously empowering the Israeli government’s genocidal assault on Gaza, which every day, costs hundreds of lives and risks putting our Israeli and Palestinian loved ones at the epicenter of a broader regional war?” said Eva Borgwardt, a national spokesperson for If Not Now, a progressive Jewish group organizing around a ceasefire.

The rush of criticism is compounded by Biden’s stubbornly unpopular standing with voters within his party. A recent Gallup poll taken after the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel showed Biden dipping 11 points. While the poll and others with similarly bleak metrics don’t break down Democrats by ideology, progressives are among the loudest raising concerns. 

The low poll numbers have given other candidates an opportunity to make their case. 

“He has lost 11 points among Democrats because of his brutal, one-sided position and he’s now down to 37 percent overall,” Uygur said. “These are facts and numbers. There’s no arguing with them.”

Establishment Democrats hoped for a cycle without any primary challengers, so that they could focus on beating Trump or another GOP opponent. But the past week, Biden drew his highest-profile primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).    

He’s also facing two independent general election bids from anti-war contenders, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, who are criticizing aspects of Biden’s approach and looking to differentiate themselves on the national stage. 

“Biden should make the only choice that saves lives, prevents another catastrophic endless war, and has any chance of saving the 2024 election: to push for an immediate ceasefire, a release of the hostages, and a de-escalation, and move to finally end the occupation, apartheid and siege at the root of the current nightmare,” said Borgwardt, the progressive Jewish organizer.

“The lives of potentially millions of Palestinians, Israelis, American Jews, and marginalized communities hang in the balance,” she added.