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Tensions with Arab-American voters loom over Biden visit to Michigan

WARREN, Mich. – President Biden sought to lean into his strengths during a Thursday trip to Michigan, even as the discontent among the state’s large Arab-American population over his handling of the situation in Gaza loomed over the visit.

Biden met with Black community leaders and chatted with patrons at They Say, a Black-owned restaurant, and spoke at a United Auto Workers (UAW) hall on the heels of the organization’s endorsement of his reelection bid during his visit to the Detroit area.

Biden won by 14 percentage points among union members in the 2020 election, while he won 87 percent of Black voters. Both groups will be critical to his success in November as he faces a likely reelection matchup with former President Donald Trump.

But the tensions Biden is facing with Arab American voters in Michigan lurked just on the periphery of his visit.

Biden’s itinerary did not take him into Dearborn, where Arab Americans make up a majority of the population, nor did it include any meetings with Arab-American leaders. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the most outspoken critics of the war in Gaza and who represents a nearby district, did not accompany Biden on the trip.

Community members gathered Wednesday night in nearby Dearborn to protest Biden’s visit. And demonstrators gathered near the union hall in Warren waving Palestinian flags and carrying signs that read “Abandon Biden,” according to The Detroit Free Press.

None of those protests were visible to the president’s motorcade, which traveled mostly along highways and did not encounter any demonstrations between stops.

The publicly available White House schedule for Thursday’s trip was vague, referring only to stops in the metropolitan Detroit area. Asked about the lack of specificity or if there was a reason for it, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters she was not aware of any particular concerns.

“I do want to say, more broadly, that the president has met with Americans with varying opinions about the conflict between Israel and Hamas,” she said aboard Air Force One. “Officials at the White House are also in regular contact with Muslim and Arab American leaders in Michigan and across the country.”

Jean-Pierre said senior Biden administration officials will travel to Michigan in the coming days “to hear directly from community leaders on a range of issues that are important to them and their families, including the conflict in Israel and Gaza.”

Biden has been grappling with frustration among Arab Americans and other voters who have been outraged by his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

Hamas, a militant group that controls Gaza, killed more than 1,000 Israelis in terrorist attacks last October. In its subsequent military campaign, Israeli forces have killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. Hospitals and refugee sites have been hit in shelling, and residents there have lacked access to water, medicine and other basic necessities.

Biden has steadfastly supported Israel’s right to respond to the Hamas attacks and has rebuffed calls for a cease-fire, instead pushing for humanitarian pauses to allow supplies into Gaza and for the release of hostages and urging Israel to minimize the impact on civilians.

Protesters have followed Biden wherever he has traveled, disrupting unrelated events to call for a cease-fire and condemn his handling of the situation in Gaza. Roughly a dozen demonstrators interrupted a Biden address in Virginia focused on abortion earlier this month, a group disrupted his speech at a Black church in South Carolina, and others shouted him down during a UAW endorsement event in Washington, D.C.

Biden won 64 percent of the Muslim vote in 2020, and Trump won 35 percent, according to exit polling by The Associated Press.

But Biden’s support among Arab American voters plunged to just 17 percent in October, just after the war started, with 25 percent in a poll conducted by the Arab American Institute saying they weren’t sure who they would vote for if the election were held then. 

Some activists in Michigan reportedly declined to meet last week with Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, when she visited the state.

Michigan is a crucial swing state, one Biden carried in 2020 by 154,000 votes against Trump. But recent polling out of the state has shown him trailing Trump narrowly. A Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday showed Trump ahead there by 5 percentage points.

Biden on Thursday sought to seize on the momentum from the UAW endorsement, which was made at an event in Washington, D.C., last week.

“To me it’s a basic, basic thing, and I mean this sincerely. Wall Street didn’t build the middle class. Labor built the middle class, and the middle class built the country,” Biden said, boasting that the U.S. had the “strongest economy in the whole damn world.”

Biden was accompanied by UAW president Shawn Fain, Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who he described as the “best governor in the country.”

“We’re going to fight like hell and we’re going to ensure Joe Biden is the next president,” Fain told a crowd of roughly 100 UAW members.

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