Biden Gives Campus Protesters the (mostly) Silent Treatment

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House for Wilmington, Delaware, in Washington, U.S., May 3, 2024.

Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments in a 2024 election in which campus protests loom increasingly large – as they often have historically.

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The big moment

High on my radar right now are the pro-Palestinian college campus protests, which are becoming increasingly volatile amid crackdowns and hundreds of arrests at Columbia University, UCLA and other colleges.

What’s particularly notable here is how President Biden has been exceedingly cautious about weighing in. A very apparent reason is that this issue is difficult for him politically; passions run high, and the Democratic base is split about evenly in its sympathies between Israel and the Palestinians. Some Democrats are effectively acknowledging such a motivation to not say more.

But Biden’s relative silence – broadly condemning antisemitism while not really weighing in on difficult issues of free speech, the crackdowns and tactics like protesters taking over campus buildings – is starting to become more conspicuous and, to my mind, potentially unsustainable.

That’s not just because of the growing tensions and scenes of unrest but also, crucially, because of the much more forceful comments from some of his high-profile Democratic colleagues.

Here’s why Biden has engaged in this delicate dance: In a close race, he can’t afford to lose voters or even have disillusioned ones sit the election out – be they more pro-Palestinian young people or more pro-Israel older Americans.

Biden has kept his comments on the protests brief and often let others speak for him. Last week, he condemned “the antisemitic protests” while also taking care to condemn “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians” – a reflection of his long-standing triangulation on the war in Gaza. A White House spokesman on Friday condemned an organizer of the Columbia protests for having said that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” Spokespeople and top officials in the State Department and the Education Department on Tuesday urged peaceful protesting while criticizing both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Asked Wednesday about the lack of further comment from Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president is monitoring the situation and emphasized his comments denouncing antisemitism. She did go somewhat beyond the antisemitism talking point, saying, “Forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful. It’s just not.”

Still, Biden hasn’t spoken out much as things have escalated.

Other Democrats are speaking, though – with increasingly full throats and with less concern about choosing sides. Many of them have turned against the protesters.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has issued a full-throated condemnation of the Israeli government’s conduct, on the Senate floor Tuesday accused some of the protesters of “criminality” and urged harsh punishments.

“Smashing windows with hammers and taking over university buildings is not free speech,” Schumer said. “It is lawlessness, and those who did it should promptly face the consequences that are not merely a slap on the wrist.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is strongly pro-Israel, said over the weekend, “I don’t believe living in a pup tent for Hamas is really helpful.”

“The First Amendment does not give you the right to break windows, to vandalize buildings, to take over private buildings, and to make students who happen to be of Jewish descent feel unsafe,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said Tuesday, adding that universities “have every right to take action against those students.”

Pro-Israel Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) echoed Lieu while saying: “These are not activities protected by the First Amendment. These are crimes punishable by law.”

Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y) issued a joint statement Tuesday calling for law enforcement to “remove the students who have engaged in unlawful actions so the campus can reopen and return to normal activity.”

Other more liberal and pro-Palestinian Democrats have come down on the other side, condemning the scale of the law-enforcement responses.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday on X that he was “outraged by the level of police presence called upon nonviolent student protestors.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) on the House floor Wednesday cited “repression” of the protests, saying using “militarized police forces … to stop these students from exercising their First Amendment right is truly disgusting.”

There is certainly some potential value in Biden being circumspect and not picking sides. But there is also real danger in not using the bully pulpit to try to guide an issue dominating the headlines, instead letting it fester and allowing the divisions to become truly ingrained. Without guidance from the top, state and local officials are taking very different approaches, with significant potential consequences both for the nation and 2024 politics.

Some Democrats are acknowledging the political difficulties at play.

Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) acknowledged to Axios that some Democrats “have been, kind of, holding back.” She cited how “in certain states like Michigan, there are big Arab American populations, big Jewish populations; it’s roiling all kinds of groups.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged over the weekend that the campus protests were a “tough one,” while urging Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to “use the bully pulpit to, kind of, hold up some good examples” of constructive protests.

Thus far, the administration hasn’t taken that advice. It’s clear there are no great answers here; but sometimes, you need to pick among the bad ones.

Another moment you might have missed, but shouldn’t

If you haven’t seen Donald Trump’s Time magazine interview that published Tuesday, you really should. After all, it’s rare to see either major presidential candidate give a long-form interview to journalists who train a critical eye upon them.

A few reflections:

– Trump’s desire to keep his party’s troubles on the abortion issue at arm’s length – by citing states’ rights and trying to leave it at that – is creating some predictable problems. A case in point: Trump suggesting that states could punish women for abortions and even monitor their pregnancies. Republicans have sought to distance their party from such proposals.

– Trump isn’t exactly shying away from the idea that his plans are rather authoritarian. The piece focuses extensively on that subject – even describing his potential “imperial presidency” – and Trump hasn’t objected to the characterization. In fact, he promoted the magazine cover on Truth Social and said, unprompted, outside court on Tuesday, “I wanted to thank Time magazine. They did a cover story which was very nice. It’s actually … at least 60 percent correct.”

– Perhaps most notably, Trump continued to toy with the idea that his supporters could turn justifiably violent. Asked about potential violence if he lost, he said, “I think we’re going to win. And if we don’t win, you know, it depends. It always depends on the fairness of an election.”

Again, Trump isn’t exactly sending a strong signal to supporters that violence is a bad idea. The threat of violence is a huge subplot of the 2024 election, given the lessons of Jan. 6, 2021. And it’s going nowhere.

An eerie – and highly coincidental – moment from the past

From the more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same department:

The date was April 30. And after negotiations had broken down, officials decided they’d had enough of protesters taking over Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall. So law enforcement was sent in, using creative means to enter the building. Students were arrested and, in some cases, suspended.

The year was 1968. The protests were about civil rights rather than the war in Gaza.

Months later, continued unrest disrupted the Democratic National Convention – which, as it will be in 2024, was held in Chicago. Six months later, Americans swapped a Democratic president for a Republican one, Richard M. Nixon, who sought to capitalize on ugly scenes of such protests while promising “law and order.”