Politics / March 7, 2024

The Working Families Party Response to Biden Will Demand a New Course on Gaza

The WFP will say that it’s morally and politically necessary to back a permanent cease-fire and end unrestricted military aid to Israel.

John Nichols
Protesters outside of the White House gates call for a cease-fire in Gaza on March 4, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

Protesters outside of the White House gates call for a cease-fire in Gaza on March 4, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

President Biden will deliver an election-year State of the Union address on Thursday night, in which the Democrat will do his best to alleviate concerns about his age and position himself as the essential alternative to a second Donald Trump presidency. After the president speaks, Alabama Senator Katie Britt, who at 42 is the youngest Republican ever elected to the Senate, will deliver a GOP response that seeks to counter Biden’s message and, perhaps, position Britt as a running mate for Trump.

But there is a looming issue that Biden and Britt are unlikely to address satisfactorily: the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza. A YouGov poll released Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans agree that the government should stop its weapons shipments to Israel until Israel ends its attacks on Gaza. Among voters who backed Biden in 2020, 62 percent want the shipments halted, while just 14 percent want them to continue. That’s a measure of the popular frustration with US support for Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 30,000 Palestinian civilians—two-thirds of them women and children.

The Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, a Philadelphia City Council member who is one of the growing number of Black faith leaders who have called for an immediate and permanent cease-fire, will speak to that outrage, as part of the Working Families Party’s response to Biden’s State of the Union address. Pastor of the Living Water United Church of Christ in Philadelphia and a highly regarded organizer who played a critical role in organizing voters in the 2020 election, O’Rourke wants to get a message to the president about the growing anger among Democratic voters—and potential Biden backers—over the president’s Gaza stance.

“Today, we are witnessing an undeniable humanitarian crisis and the establishment is falling desperately short. The United States has given moral and material support to the arrogant and extreme-right Netanyahu Regime as it daily wages a horrific bombing campaign in Gaza,” O’Rourke plans to tell the national audience that tunes into the WFP response, according to prepared remarks shared with The Nation.

O’Rourke will decry as “abhorrent” the October 7 Hamas attack on Israeli kibbutzim and a music festival. But he also plans to condemn “the government of Israel’s campaign of collective retribution” as “disgraceful and flatly unacceptable.”

Shortly after the October 7 attack, a pair of WFP-backed House Democrats, Missouri’s Cori Bush and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, led the organized support for a congressional resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. The Biden administration is now talking about the need for a temporary cease-fire, but O’Rourke will say that talk is not enough. He will explain that “it’s time to shift to action,” including an end to unrestricted military aid to Israel and a renewal of diplomatic efforts aimed at freeing hostages and “ending the occupation, and bringing long-term peace, security and freedom to every human being in that region, regardless of religion.”

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In a conversation with The Nation, O’Rourke explained that he will discuss a wide range of economic and social and racial justice issues in his response to the president’s address. Those are core concerns of the WFP, a quarter-century-old independent party that frequently aligns with the Democrats—as it did in 2020, when it endorsed Biden for president—but sometimes elects candidates, such as O’Rourke, on its own ballot lines in states across the country.

In recent years, the WFP had organized responses to the annual State of the Union address, featuring US Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts in 2020, Tlaib in 2021, Jamaal Bowman of New York in 2022, and Delia Ramirez of Illinois in 2023.

In this year’s response, O’Rourke will talk about the role that the WFP played in helping Biden win battleground states such as Pennsylvania in 2020, about the support the group has given to a number of Biden’s domestic economic initiatives, and about the importance of beating Trump and right-wing Republicans in 2024.

But O’Rourke’s message will also feature a warning to Biden about the threat that the administration’s Gaza stance could pose to the president’s reelection bid.

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“Gaza is the issue that can’t be ignored,” he told The Nation. Noting that more than 100,000 Michigan voters cast “uncommitted” ballots in that state’s February 27 Democratic presidential primary, following a “Listen to Michigan” campaign by cease-fire supporters, O’Rourke explained, “It is not in the president’s interest to pretend that this is not the major issue for millions of people that he will need to win reelection. When 100,000 people go to the trouble of voting ‘no,’ voting ‘uncommitted,’ you cannot act like it is not the major issue that it is.”

O’Rourke, who became the second WFP member to be elected to the Philadelphia City Council last fall, is an able political organizer. He has served as statewide organizing director for the Pennsylvania WFP, pulling together campaigns to raise the minimum wage, end mass incarceration, and elect progressive state and local candidates. In 2020, he helped organize the spirited “Vote Today, Philly” voter mobilization drive, which contacted more than 80,000 voters in heavily Democratic precincts and locked in nearly 50,000 early votes. Those votes were vital for Biden in Pennsylvania, a state that the Democrats won by barely 80,000 votes. When Trump and his backers raised objections, O’Rourke organized Philadelphians to assure that all the votes were counted and that poll workers were not intimidated.

This year, O’Rourke explains that it is vital to “block Trump and the MAGA movement.” But, to do that, the pastor and political organizer argues, Biden needs to listen to the Democrats who are pleading with him to change course on Gaza. The WFP, he says, is trying, “in some sense, to speak directly to the president—and we’re hoping that he hears it.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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