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 driven 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.