The liberal coalition that drove Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in 2020 is fraying under the weight of the escalating Israeli military strikes aimed at Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, where the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating.
Though Democrats are largely united in their support for abortion and voting rights, the promise of “Bidenomics” and growing organized labor power, the president’s unswerving public support for the Israeli government’s retaliatory attacks, which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, could deepen the frustration felt by the young, progressives voters who broke heavily for him three years ago.
In backing Israel’s increasingly bloody response to Hamas’ brutal terror attacks on October 7, Biden risks further unwinding a meticulously woven confederacy of supporters crucial to his reelection hopes in 2024. Though the vast majority of elected Democrats, and even leading progressives, generally agree that Israel is within its rights to carry out retaliatory strikes inside Gaza, the rising death toll has touched off a passionate push, particularly among the under-30 crowd, for an immediate ceasefire.
Biden on Monday dismissed that talk, saying he would not consider supporting one until all of the hostages taken by Hamas were returned home. That remark irked many on the left. But even within the camps most critical of the president’s position, the path forward seems murky – and the search for powerful political allies has yielded little.
More than 250 former staffers from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns sent a letter on Tuesday that called on the Vermont progressive to introduce a “Ceasefire Now” resolution in the Senate.
“It is largely because of your advocacy that Democratic voter sympathies made a major historical shift this past year toward Palestinian rights,” the group wrote. “Today, we’re asking you to use your power, the respect you have across the United States and globe, to clearly and boldly stand up against war, against occupation and for the dignity of human life.”
Sanders has not gone as far as his former staffers asked, but in remarks Wednesday on the Senate floor called for a humanitarian “pause,” arguing it was “essential for the protection of civilians as required by the laws of war, as well as for the provision of robust supplies of food, water, and medical aid to address the growing humanitarian catastrophe.” He also set out his many concerns over a potential ground invasion and re-occupation of Gaza by Israel.
He did not, however, endorse more formal demands, like those in Missouri Rep. Cori Bush’s House resolution, calling for “an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”
Still, tactical differences among progressives represent a relatively minor obstacle for Democrats in 2024. The more immediately consequential divisions – the kind that could be exploited by Republicans – exist between the Democratic Party establishment, led by Biden, and young liberal voters.
“Age is the biggest factor into where folks are on this issue,” one Democratic strategist said. “Engaged voters under 30 are very much in the ceasefire camp. Over-40 folks are standing with Israel. And then you have the mucky middle of a lot of engaged Democrats in their 30s.”
Any decrease in support for Biden among the youngest voting bloc – which had shown significant signs of dissatisfaction with him before this month – could be troubling to his reelection prospects.
Nearly 60% of 18- to 29-year-old voters backed Biden in 2020, giving him a 24-point advantage against Trump with the age group, according to the Pew Research Center. No other demographic group broke even half as strongly for the Democrat.
“The president and the White House are underestimating how much of a threat it would be for them to be seen as behind an Israeli ground invasion and how direct of a threat that could pose to his reelection prospects,” Max Berger, a progressive organizer and co-founder of IfNotNow, a left-wing American Jewish group. “The possibility that an Israeli ground invasion and a regional war becomes Biden’s Vietnam is something that (the administration) needs to do everything in their power to prevent.”
The Biden administration has pressed Israeli leaders to delay their expected invasion of Gaza to allow for the release of more hostages held by Hamas and for additional aid to reach Gaza, according to two sources briefed on the discussions, CNN reported earlier this week.
“The [administration] pressed Israeli leadership to delay because of progress on the hostage front,” and the need to get trucks of aid into Gaza, one person familiar with the discussions said.
Asked about those discussions on Wednesday, Biden denied any suggestion that he was guiding or pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response.
“What I have indicated to him is that if that’s possible, to get these folks out safely, that’s what he should do,” Biden said of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. “It is their decision, but I did not demand it.” (A senior Israeli official told CNN the US “is not pressing Israel in regards to the ground operation.”)
Though he insisted Israel’s focus should be on “going after the folks that are propagating this war against Israel” and not civilians, and condemned “extremist settlers” from Israel attacking Palestinians in the West Bank, Biden expressed skepticism over the death figures provided by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.
“I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” Biden said during a Rose Garden news conference. “I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s a price of waging war.”
A CNN poll conducted in the days after Hamas’ attack included a raft of sobering data for the White House to consider.
Asked if they “trust President Joe Biden to make the right decisions about the situation in Israel,” only 7% of 18- to 34-year-olds said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the president. That figure jumped to 43% in the same demographic when including those with “moderate” belief in his decision-making on the issue. But that still fell short of the combined 57% who said they had “not much” trust in him or “none at all.”
The potential political troubles created by young voters’ lack of faith in Biden’s handling of the conflict could be compounded by the fact that they were the only group polled in which a majority (54%) of respondents said they had “a lot” of sympathy “for the Palestinian people.”
Only 27% of that same cohort said Israel’s military response to the Hamas attacks was “fully justified” – an opinion that predated nearly two additional weeks of attacks inside Gaza and any future ground invasion.
Last week, more than 400 congressional staffers, a traditionally young crowd, signed onto a letter imploring their bosses to back a ceasefire. They did not, however, put their names on the document, citing “concern for our personal safety, risk of violence, and the impact on our professional credibility on Capitol Hill.”
Concerns among young voters with mixed or conflicting views about Israel’s onslaught in Gaza have come under fierce scrutiny from Democratic elected officials and corporate titans.
Some of the most intense backlash has been directed at mostly younger students at preeminent institutions, like Harvard University, where a coalition of groups issued a joint statement following Hamas’ attacks that claimed “the Israeli regime (is) entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
The backlash was immediate and harsh. Billionaire hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman and other corporate leaders demanded Harvard release the names of students whose organizations signed on to the letter – with a promise to blacklist them.
A handful of the groups and individuals who signed the document withdrew their endorsements in the days that followed and prominent progressive groups mostly ignored or dismissed the sentiments expressed in the Harvard letter and other, similar documents, as fringe views.
But the chilling effect was clear – and deeply disturbing to young activist leaders.
“I’m too young to know what the world felt like in the aftermath of 9/11,” IfNotNow political director Eva Borgwardt told CNN, “but I’ve heard the stories and I’ve heard the way in which similar repression of dissent was part of what created a path toward the Iraq war and deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”