Apr 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden's tough options as Gaza protests unravel on college campuses

This is a protester

A demonstrator from the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University breaks a window at Hamilton Hall. Photo: Alex Kent/Getty Images

For President Biden, the barricades and broken glass on college campuses are a brutal reminder that America has not snapped back to the normalcy he promised in his 2020 campaign.

Why it matters: A day after the dramatic takeover of a Columbia University building, the White House is facing a year-end exam with no good answers.

  • They can have Biden forcefully and personally condemn the protesters, and risk alienating the same young voters the president needs to be more energized for him to win in November.
  • Biden can stand in solidarity with the protesters and offend centrists.
  • Or they can have spokespeople make calls for civil and peaceful demonstrations, with no real expectation that students will pay them any heed.

Driving the news: After the protests escalated overnight, the White House is pursuing the last option, with spokesman Andrew Bates saying "protests must be peaceful and lawful."

  • Biden didn't address the Columbia takeover — or the tension between students and administrators at other colleges — in person on Tuesday.
  • The strategy appears to be to let the protests play out, wait for undergrads to leave for the summer, and hope that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is in place before students return in the fall.

What they are saying: In private and public, Democrats are concerned about the videos of protesters vandalizing buildings, not to mention the increasingly antisemitic nature of some of their rhetoric.

  • "The most fundamental question in this election is which candidate is about order and which about chaos," said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic organization, Third Way.
  • "Though Trump is the greatest chaos agent in the history of the presidency, these or other protests might help him win that argument."
  • "While Donald Trump stood proudly with white supremacists and encouraged violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators, Joe Biden defends our First Amendment and strengthened protections against antisemitism and Islamophobia," said Mia Ehrenberg, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign.

Zoom out: For the White House, the divisive campus debates about Israel and Hamas in the spring of 2024 are an echo of the "defund the police" discussion in the summer of 2020.

Zoom in: Biden advisers don't think the Israel-Hamas conflict is the main priority of young voters.

  • Yes, by a 5-to-1 ratio, voters under 30 support a permanent ceasefire, according to Harvard Institute of Politics latest survey, conducted by John Della Volpe, a youth-polling expert.
  • But the war is the top concern of only 2% of young voters, well below the economy, inflation and immigration.

At the same time, it's clear Biden has a problem with young voters. In April of 2020, a CNN poll gave him a 31% lead of Trump.

Go deeper