Politics / March 4, 2024

How Long Can Joe Biden Keep Hiding From His Own Voters?

Unable to defend his Israel/Palestine policy, the president has gone into the Witness Protection Program.

Jeet Heer
Joe Biden at podium
President Joe Biden announces the cancellation of an additional $1.2 billion in student loan debt at the Julian Dixon Library in Culver City, Calif.—far from any possible protests over his policy towards Israel’s war in Gaza. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Here are a few truths that might seem almost too banal to even need to be put into words: Politics is about meeting people. The skilled politician is a people person, someone who is good at glad-handing, back-slapping, and baby-kissing. In an election, a politician should try to get his message out to as many people as possible—ideally in large rallies that energize core supporters who then return to the community to promote the message to their neighbors. The genuinely great politicians of our era—Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and (leaving his vile agenda aside) Donald Trump—are like rock stars in their ability to command and enthrall large crowds.

These might all seem like all-too-obvious platitudes, but Biden is recklessly defying this view of politics—and his own lifelong political instincts. Until the launching of his 2019 presidential campaign, Biden was the quintessential meet-and-greet pol, happiest when he was on the hustings firing up the Democratic faithful. As he advanced in age, Biden’s ability to maintain a punishing campaign schedule diminished. That didn’t matter for Biden’s successful 2020 presidential run, where he was helped by the Covid pandemic, which allowed him to run what The New York Times described as a “cloistered campaign” that relied on digital fireside chats in place of large assemblies.

As Biden geared up for his reelection bid in 2023, there were reports that the “cloistered campaign” would be refashioned into a “Rose Garden campaign.” This was a traditional mode for a president seeking a second term: do plenty of photo ops in the White House lawn and on the tarmac outside of Air Force One to emphasize that the choice is between an experienced commander in chief and a risky change of course.

Biden’s faltering poll numbers made a Rose Garden campaign chancy. Unfortunately, the alternative the Biden campaign has settled on is an even bigger gamble: a bizarre new innovation we can call the Witness Protection Program campaign. These days, it often seems easier to find a mafioso who ratted out his cronies than the president of the United States.

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Battered by criticism of his administration’s unconditional support for Israel’s brutal campaign in Gaza, with his zealous retro-Zionism turning off not just Arab Americans and a wide swath of younger voters but also a majority of the Democratic Party—and clearly fearful of images of the president being confront by protesters—the White House is now arranging to have the president meet as few of his supporters as possible. This innovative form of mobilizing the base comes after more than 100,000 voters in the Michigan Democratic primary voted “uncommitted.”

This strong vote of no confidence from some of the most active and engaged Democrats came in a crucial state that Biden won in 2020 by only about 150,000 votes.  On February 28, The New York Times reported that some Biden supporters were afraid to even talk to Michigan voters. According to the Times, “Other would-be Biden surrogates were asked to travel to Michigan and declined because they did not want to engage with Gaza protesters, according to people familiar with the negotiations.”

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On Friday, NBC published a genuinely alarming report outlining how fear of pro-Palestinian protesters has convinced Biden that he needs to keep a wide distance from his own voters. According to the report, “President Joe Biden’s team is increasingly taking extraordinary steps to minimize disruptions from pro-Palestinian protests at his events by making them smaller, withholding their precise locations from the media and the public until he arrives, avoiding college campuses and, in at least one instance, considering hiring a private company to vet attendees.”

A Biden ally told NBC that Biden is “better in small venues”—a setting where he can supposedly “thrive.” This savvy insider did acknowledge “the downside is that means he doesn’t reach as many voters.”

One strategy to shield Biden from contact with ordinary Democrats is to hold high-priced fundraisers that will ensure that the president has contact only with ultra-rich donors who, it is assumed, will understand the importance of not raising their voices about the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Gaza. One such event, featuring Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well as the president, is planned for next month. The venue for this event has yet to be announced even to donors and is likely to be kept under wraps until closer to the date. As NBC notes, “The lowest-cost tickets will be set at a price still high enough—the campaign hopes—to interest only true supporters of Biden’s re-election effort.” The danger of this event is that it is likely to only increase criticism of the Democrats as being out of touch and beholden to the wealthy. On February 21, Biden announced $1.2 billion in student debt relief at an event in Los Angeles. Student debt relief is a measure that ought to help shore up Biden’s support with young people, who were an essential part of his winning 2020 coalition. But as NBC notes, Biden spoke “in front of a few dozen people at a small public library in the Los Angeles area, not at one of the at least five large college campuses within a 10-mile radius.”

Not just Biden but also his most important surrogates, who should be combing the country in order to galvanize the Democratic base, are taking the witness protection route. Even stars like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, instead of holding massive rallies, are being shoehorned into small donor events.

Ideally, Kamala Harris should be an important surrogate who could generate excitement among voters otherwise cool to Biden. But she has become as wary of large public events as Biden. Last year, she frequently spoke at college campuses. In recent weeks, Harris has spoken at only one campus, South Carolina State University.

After Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, her campaign was roundly criticized for neglecting Midwestern swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Notoriously, Clinton didn’t even campaign in Michigan, where her campaign feared that the very sight of the candidate would enrage blue-collar voters, angry at the impact of her husband’s free trade policies.

But what Biden and his campaign are doing now is much greater political malpractice than anything Hillary Clinton did in 2016. She merely neglected swing states. Biden is neglecting the entire country.

All of this is happening while Biden continues to trail Donald Trump in polls, and the public increasingly sours on Biden’s nearly total backing of Israel in the current conflict.

On Saturday, The New York Times and Siena College released a new poll showing Trump leading by 48 percent to Biden’s 43 percent: “President Biden is struggling to overcome doubts about his leadership inside his own party and broad dissatisfaction over the nation’s direction, leaving him trailing behind Donald J. Trump.”

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported, “A plurality of American voters think Israel has gone too far in responding to the October attacks by Hamas, and a growing share believes the U.S. isn’t doing enough to help the Palestinian people.” A Wall Street Journal poll showed that 60 percent of voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the war, with 42 percent believing Israel has gone too far in the war. This position was polarized along partisan lines, with fully 80 percent of Democrats believing Israel has gone too far as against only 9 percent of Republicans. Further, older Democrats are now nearly as critical of Israel as younger Democrats. According to the Journal, “Among Democrats ages 40 and older, 71% said Israel had gone too far in responding to Hamas, essentially identical to the share of Democrats under age 40.”

While Biden has voiced criticism of Israel, this has been coupled with only minimal and superficial action, such as an airdrop of food into Gaza that is rightly being criticized as a meaningless photo op.

In other words, Biden is carrying out policies that only please people who will never vote for him, Republicans—and in defiance of the wishes of his actual political base. No wonder Biden doesn’t want to meet his own voters.

The presidential election is still eight months away and much can change. But Biden’s problem goes beyond faltering poll numbers. The core problem is that he refuses to listen to what his own party wants. Simple common sense suggests you can’t win an election while in the Witness Protection Program.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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