Biden’s Gaza problems are deeper than just being interrupted in public

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 8: A woman holds a sign suggesting that she might now vote for Donald Trump for president as protesters march in the street to denounce the Biden administration's support of Israel, which has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians so far in its war against Hamas in Gaza, on December 8, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden plan to attend six fundraising events and meetings between them in the Los Angeles area over the weekend. More than 17,487 Palestinians, including more than 6,600 children, are reported to have been killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since the Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel, killing approximately 1,200 on October 7. After a several day cease fire to exchange hostages and prisoners, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have resumed its bombing and ground fighting, now intensifying in southern Gaza after weeks of warning people to flee there to escape Israeli bombing in the north.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

A woman holds a sign suggesting that she might now vote for Donald Trump for president as protesters march in the street to denounce the Biden administration’s support of Israel on December 8, 2023, in Los Angeles.David McNew/Getty ImagesWashingtonCNN — 

Just weeks before the 2020 election, Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib pressed undecided voters in Michigan to throw their support behind Joe Biden.

In a virtual rally alongside other lawmakers, the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress was clear in her enthusiasm for Biden, arguing that he would create a better future for Americans.

“This election … has to be a huge turnout, one that for me has to speak volumes. People say your vote is your voice; well, I want the voice to be a bullhorn,” she said, adding, “I want it to be so loud and so echoey that people understand exactly what we all believe in, which is, we believe that government must be about people.”

More than three years later, the silence from Tlaib and other Muslim leaders on the president’s 2024 reelection bid is speaking volumes as Biden continues to back Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza.

Tlaib – a liberal firebrand who represents parts of Detroit and its suburbs – accused the president in November of supporting a Palestinian “genocide,” straining her relationship with Biden. Her office declined multiple requests for comment on whether she would support the president in his reelection bid.

The distance between Tlaib and the White House is reflective of the work Biden must do to repair the relationship with a key part of his coalition. Many Arab Americans and Muslim voters who have spoken to CNN say they will not support Biden’s reelection efforts due to his unwavering support of Israel and failure to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. But the problems go beyond that – Democratic strategists who spoke to CNN are warning that the president may struggle to find surrogates willing to take on the task of speaking to key voter groups such as Muslims, Arab Americans and angered progressives.

William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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The administration appears to be struggling with finding Arab American and Muslim leaders who are willing to even meet with White House officials, and no Muslim or Arab American groups have endorsed Biden’s reelection bid.

But multiple local leaders declined invitations to meet with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager. Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud, the city’s first Arab American and Muslim mayor who represents one of the country’s largest Muslim populations, told CNN Friday that he declined the meeting because “this is not a time for electoral politics” and that a conversation about change would be “with policymakers. Not campaign staff.”

“If President Biden would want to come and have a real conversation about how he changes course, about his actions, decisions that he’s made overseas upon calling for an immediate ceasefire, we can entertain such a conversation and sit down,” Hammoud told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins on “The Source.”

In a previous interview with CNN, Hammoud said he would be willing to meet with the president if there was a “an opportunity to have a real constructive dialogue about how we move forward.”

“But if it’s just an opportunity to take pictures and to say that ‘we listened,’ but nothing is changing, then it’s not a table worth sitting at,” he told CNN.

A White House spokesperson told CNN its officials have “had more than 100 conversations with leaders at the local and state level concerning the conflict and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.”

In addition, the spokesperson added that the White House offices of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement have consistently engaged with community leaders and elected officials since the October 7 attacks.

Recently, a staffer in Vice President Kamala Harris’ office reached out to a prominent figure within the Arab American community in Michigan to see whether they would meet with Harris as the vice president wanted to speak with community leaders, according to a person familiar with these conversations.

The individual declined the request, stating the administration has continued to “ignore” Arab Americans following the October 7 attack, the person said. Harris’ office said in a statement to CNN that “the President and Vice President have made it a priority to hear directly from Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities of America on the conflict in Gaza.”

“(Harris) has also spoken to Hanan Shaheen, the mother of Wadee Alfayoumi, the 6-year-old Palestinian-American who was killed in October in Illinois. The President and Vice President will continue to listen and engage directly with these communities,” the statement said.

Discord becoming all too apparent

Biden has not been able to ignore the discord within his own party as he attempts to turn the page to a general election campaign, as cries of “Genocide Joe” and “ceasefire now” follow him around the campaign trail.

Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond said the president should be concerned about the lack of support he is getting among these communities, particularly in Michigan, which is home to more than 200,000 Muslim American voters.

“He’s got a little bit of a political tightrope to walk right now,” said Hemond, who is based in Michigan. “A lot of them are going to respond by staying home because they think both their options are bad. And I think that’s a pretty good descriptor of Arab American voters right now.”

The ceasefire calls are coming from a diversity of progressive groups, including those representing Jewish voters, voters of color and young people – key parts of Biden’s winning 2020 coalition.

Chavez Rodriguez’s Michigan meetings, the source familiar said, are part of a routine dialogue with constituency groups and “have been in the works for several weeks” as the Biden campaign looks to engage with grassroots leaders.

US President Joe Biden at the United Auto Workers (UAW) conference in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. The United Auto Workers union on Wednesday endorsed Biden, delivering a long-sought boost to Biden's 2024 reelection campaign ahead of an increasingly likely rematch with Donald Trump. Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Assad Turfe, a deputy Wayne County executive, said the campaign was in touch with him about three weeks ago to gauge the community’s feelings. The campaign reached out again this week and asked whether he’d help organize a meeting with members of the community and Chavez Rodriguez for Friday.

He was working toward assembling a meeting of 10 to 15 members of the Arab American and Muslim community, including some local elected officials, for Friday afternoon, but they ultimately decided not to move forward.

“I gauged the pulse of the community, and the war in Gaza’s been going on for 111 days. There’s 30,000 dead people. Fifty percent of the population is living in hunger. There’s no functioning hospitals and ultimately there’s been 111 days to able to call for a ceasefire,” he said. “At the end of the day, people look at us as leaders, and we’ve got to make a leadership decision and we’ve got to do what’s in the best interest of our community.”

Osama Siblani, a Dearborn community leader and publisher of the Arab American News, was among those who did meet with Chavez Rodriguez on Friday morning, calling the 90-minute conversation “direct and frank.”

“I looked her in the eyes and told her how I and my community feel about Biden,” said Siblani, who is Lebanese American.

Potential backers stay silent

The White House has tried to quell criticism of the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict by holding listening sessions for groups from inside and outside of the government. It also deployed Dilawar Syed – the deputy administrator of the US Small Business Administration who is one of the highest-ranking Muslim officials in the Biden administration – to a vigil for the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, stabbed to death because he was Muslim.

But those efforts have failed to quell frustrations among sections of Biden’s 2020 coalition.

“To discount the anger from Arab voters, Muslim voters and voters of color across the country who also overwhelmingly support a ceasefire is discounting core parts of (Biden’s) base and the core base of the Democratic Party that has – election after election – elected Democrats and served as the reason Democrats beat Republicans in every campaign cycle that they do,” said Usamah Andrabi, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive grassroots organization.

In the last presidential election cycle, Biden received the support of several prominent Muslim American elected officials and community leaders. But this time around, many are skeptical – and angry.

“I believe he is beyond redemption,” said Khalid Turaani, 57, a consultant based in Michigan and co-chair of the state’s chapter of the Abandon Biden movement. “I will not vote for Joe Biden. I believe that his complicity and his active participation in the genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza disqualify him from my vote.”

“I just feel very, very angry that I voted for such a person that would enable such atrocities,” said Farah Khan, an IT specialist in Northville, Michigan.

At least 146,620 of the 200,000 Muslim American voters in Michigan cast a ballot in the 2020 election cycle, according to an analysis by Emgage. In 2020, Biden won Michigan by three percentage points over Trump. Four years prior, Trump won the state over Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by 0.2 percentage points.

Muslim leaders within the Abandon Biden movement, a national campaign working against Biden’s reelection efforts, say they operate in crucial swing states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania to get voters not to support Biden.

Nabila Taha, a Pennsylvania resident who spoke at an Abandon Biden news conference in Washington, DC, this month, said she would do everything possible to ensure Biden will not win in 2024.

“We will go knocking on every door … telling them the story of the billions that they are sending over to kill our brothers and sisters instead of spending it here on our schools, while our senior citizens are fighting to choose between eating or paying for medications,” Taha said.

Abandoning the president

The Abandon Biden campaign was created in Minnesota after a group of Muslim Americans demanded the president call for a ceasefire by October 31. And when Biden didn’t respond to these calls to support a permanent halt in fighting, the group vowed to campaign against him.

When a reporter asked Biden whether he were concerned about Arab American voters who said they would not support him, he responded, “The former president wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country. … We understand who cares about the Arab population.”

Michael Tyler, the Biden campaign’s communications director, told reporters on Wednesday that the president will “continue to engage in conversations with the Arab American community.”

“We believe that it’s important to have consistent conversations with folks, even when they disagree with you on a policy position,” he said.

President Joe Biden speaks to United Auto Workers members at the UAW's Community Action Program legislative conference in Washington, DC, on January 24.

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But it is still unclear whether Biden or Harris plans to visit Michigan or other states to engage with Arab American and Muslim voters specifically. Some Arab American and Muslim voters say even if Biden’s campaign ramps up their outreach, it will be too late.

“I feel used as a Muslim voter,” said Ariana Afshar, 27, a content creator based in California. “He used people like myself in order to get elected and is now doing whatever serves him in his position.”

“Outreach will not work here,” said Hassan Abdel Salam, a human rights professor at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the Abandon Biden campaign. “When you conduct this type of campaign of death, and it lasts over 100 days, there is no way that any outreach can reverse the decisions they’ve done.”

“There is no possibility of repair while he is supporting an act of genocide. So, there is no reason to have communication,” said Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Some Michigan voters told CNN that they would rather support a third-party candidate or Trump if it means Biden will lose in 2024.

“If it’s neck and neck, and in order to get Biden to lose it will require me to vote for Trump, then absolutely I will do that. I will do exactly that,” said Samraa Luqman, 41, a real estate agent who did not vote for Biden or Trump in the last presidential election cycle.

She added: “I never in my life thought I would say that. … They have really screwed up this time.”

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