It was President Joe Biden’s first big campaign rally of the year, a chance to spotlight the issue of protecting abortion rights. Instead, at least a dozen times during Biden’s 22-minute speech, demonstrators scattered throughout the audience rose to shout out demands for a cease-fire in Gaza.
His speech in Virginia this past week became a fits-and-starts affair. Over and over, the protesters interjected and were drowned out by audience members shouting chants of “four more years!” and “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“They feel deeply,” Biden said of the demonstrators, who were pulled from the room by security personnel.
The Democratic president is increasingly contending with protests inside and outside his events from progressives upset about his administration’s support for Israel in its offensive in Gaza.
More than 26,000 Palestinians, mostly women and minors, have been killed in Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
The protests lay bare the tensions Biden is facing within his own party as he struggles with the fallout from his handling of the war while honouring the First Amendment rights of his critics to speak out. Biden’s ability to navigate those crosscurrents will be critical to his re-election effort as he tries to energize Democrats this fall, especially young people who are particularly concerned about the war’s effects.
Demonstrators disrupted Biden’s speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina earlier this month as the president spoke out against racism, and they turned up at a United Auto Workers gathering this past week in Washington where Biden accepted the powerful union’s endorsement, and at a political event in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday.
“For most people, you get very few chances in this life to confront the president of the United States,” said Niki Thomas, a 29-year-old UAW member who yelled for a cease-fire and was dragged from the room during Biden’s speech to the union. “There was no way that we weren’t going to take that opportunity to speak up for ourselves, for our members, to get a chance to let the president know how we feel.”
Protesting is an American tradition, and it’s hardly a surprise that a president would see demonstrations on an issue such as the Israel-Hamas conflict. Biden aides and allies say the loud few do not represent the majority who back his policies.
“Is it helpful? No. It’s not helpful to the president’s ability to mobilize and coalesce his base,” Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher said of the protests. “But is it fatal at this point? I don’t think it’s fatal. They have to navigate it.”
As part of that navigation, he said, Biden needs to show voters what he’s doing to end the conflict and contrast that with what Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said: that the war should be allowed to “play out.” The former president also has called for US borders to be sealed from Palestinian refugees.
Biden and his aides have said they do not want to see any civilians die in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and Biden helped broker a temporary cease-fire that saw critical aid reach the territory and the release of some hostages held by the militants.
During a visit to Tel Aviv, Biden warned the Israelis not to be “consumed by rage.” But Biden has also said he believes Israel has the right to defend itself and he has asked Congress for billions to help Israel in its war effort.
“The president is concerned, as I said at the very outset, with the 100-plus hostages,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “He’s not looking at the clock and the electoral calendar.”
Democratic voters in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday were roughly split on how Biden has handled the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to AP VoteCast.
Just 4 in 10 of those who disapproved of how Biden has managed the conflict voted for him. But among those who approve of Biden’s leadership in the Middle East, nearly 8 in 10 voted for him.
How the president handles his vocal detractors is important, too. Those who disrupt his events are typically removed by security or event staff. If someone is considered a threat or becomes violent, they may face arrest. No one has been arrested so far.
Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler said Biden’s response to demonstrators shows he’s “a president who understands and respects Americans’ fundamental First Amendment rights to peacefully protest.”
“Joe Biden is approaching the situation in the Middle East, not through the lens of politics, but as the commander in chief of this country who was prioritizing American national security and global security,” Tyler said. He said Biden was doing so “with the empathy and the decency that complex situations demand.”
It’s a stark contrast, he said, to how Trump handles dissent.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s rallies occasionally devolved into violence, with demonstrators kicked or punched as they were escorted out, and Trump calling the disrupters “disgusting” and troublemakers.”
This year, Trump has faced isolated protests at recent campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire by demonstrators on climate change and other policies.
When he was interrupted at a rally in Indianola, Iowa, shortly before the state’s Republican caucuses on Jan. 15, Trump taunted from the stage as a protester was quickly removed: “Go home to mommy. Your mommy is waiting. Go home to mommy.”
At a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, Trump dismissed protesters as “misguided people.”
The next night, when a protester interrupted his rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump directed from the stage: “You can throw him out.”
Biden has tried to acknowledge and empathize with the concerns of his protesters and move on with his speeches.
During Biden’s remarks at Mother Emanuel, where nine Black parishioners were shot to death in a 2015 racist attack, he put up his hand to calm the angry crowd as protesters were removed.
One demonstrator shouted: “If you really care about the lives lost here, then you should honour the lives lost and call for a cease-fire in Palestine!”
Biden responded: “I understand their passion. And I’ve been quietly working — I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”
One audience member yelled from the pews: “You’re an understanding person. You’re an understanding person.”