Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 30 April 2024



Biden, Democrats Under Growing Pressure as College Protests Intensify

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WASHINGTON—The wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations across U.S. colleges has created a growing political headache for President Biden and congressional Democrats, who find themselves splintered between one group pushing to rein in the protests and another defending activists’ rights to keep up the pressure on Israel policy.

Campus tensions over the Israel-Hamas war have also created an opening for Republicans to paint Democrats as the party of chaos and dysfunction, particularly with students and parents facing uncertainty heading into exam and graduation season. The protests have fueled charges that colleges aren’t effectively addressing antisemitism as well as raising concerns about police arrests and disciplinary actions against students and faculty.

The overnight occupation of an academic building at Columbia University further raised the stakes, sparking administration officials to step up their criticism of some activists. Biden, who didn’t answer questions from reporters Tuesday afternoon, has taken a cautious approach in his comments, last week condemning both “antisemitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.” 

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, said Tuesday that Biden believes that “forcibly taking over a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach, that is not an example of peaceful protest.” He said a “small percentage of students shouldn’t be able to disrupt the academic experience, the legitimate study for the rest of the student body.”


In testimony in front of a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was pressed on what he thought about harassment of students on campus. 

“What’s happening on our campuses is abhorrent,” Cardona said. He said he has spoken to Jewish students who fear going to class, and the department has reached out to colleges about their obligations to protect students. He said that if schools fail to comply with federal antidiscrimination laws, they put their federal funding at risk.

Many tents remained up in the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University after the school asked students to disband the encampment by 2 p.m. on Monday. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty

The latest developments underscore how the war continues to pose challenges for Biden at home, as he navigates divisions within the Democratic Party over Israel and faces what is expected to be a tight re-election campaign against Republican former President Donald Trump in the fall. 

“How in the world, as president of the United States, can you sit on the fence and allow this antisemitic behavior to go on?’’ said Rep. Drew Ferguson (R., Ga.). 

At a press conference Tuesday, Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.) criticized both Biden and college presidents and said House GOP committees would be scrutinizing federal funding of universities and visas for foreign students. 


In remarks Tuesday to reporters, Trump called the unrest at colleges the “Biden protests” and criticized the president’s reticence. “He’s got to make a statement. Colleges are being overrun,” Trump said. 

Trump’s own presidency was damaged in 2017 when a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in the death of a counterprotester. In his own comments at the time, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.” During the Black Lives Matter protests in many Democratic-run cities, Republicans pointed to the unrest to portray an image of disorder under Democrats’ watch.

Biden’s campaign pushed back against the notion that he wasn’t adequately responding to the protests.

“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,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said. 


Pro-Palestinian protesters link arms around campers at Washington University’s campus in St. Louis, Mo. Photo: Christine Tannous/st. louis post-dispatch/Associated Press
Police arrest Pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment at the Emory Campus in Atlanta. Photo: Arvin Temkar/atlanta journal constitution/Zuma Press

Progressives emphasize that most of the pro-Palestinian protests have been peaceful and include some Jewish students. They remain angry with the administration for not taking a harder line with Israel on its actions in Gaza, a monthslong siege that has also taken a heavy toll on civilians. The pro-Palestinian protesters have been calling for a cease-fire, an end to U.S. aid to Israel and for their colleges to divest from companies that do business with Israel.

“To just, with a broad brush, say that these protests are antisemitic is wrong,’’ said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.), chair of the progressive caucus.

“Protesting war is not antisemitism, it’s a display of our free speech rights,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D., Wis.), citing the role of demonstrations in helping to end the Vietnam War.

But some Democrats are alarmed by what they see as antisemitism emanating from the protests. A group of 21 House Democrats on Monday wrote a letter to Columbia’s board of trustees calling on the school leaders to disband the protesters’ encampment, which they called “a breeding ground for antisemitic attacks.” 


“The party is divided on this, it’s been divided on this, you can see the statements, it’s a shame,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D., Fla.), who signed the letter. 

The daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) was arrested earlier in April during a protest at Columbia. In a visit to the campus last week, the congresswoman told a reporter that all Jewish students should be kept safe—“whether they are pro-genocide or anti-genocide.” Her comment suggesting that some students back genocide caused an uproar. 

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D., Calif.), a member of party leadership, said the comment wasn’t helpful. 

“It’s not the language I would have chosen,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I think we all have an obligation to turn the temperature down.”


Speaker Mike Johnson said House GOP committees would be scrutinizing federal funding of universities and visas for foreign students. Photo: Stefan Jeremiah/Associated Press

Republicans plan to highlight Democratic division with a House bill this week called the Antisemitism Awareness Act. Some moderate Democrats are expected to join with Republicans to pass the measure aimed at cracking down on allegations of antisemitism on campus. Critics say it is overly broad and steps on free-speech rights.

The legislation would require the Education Department to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when enforcing federal antidiscrimination laws. The IHRA definition, which includes “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” has been criticized by some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, on free speech grounds for equating criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has brought its population to the brink of famine and killed more than 34,000 people, according to Palestinian authorities. Authorities in Gaza say most of the dead are women and children. The Hamas-led assault on Israel on Oct. 7 left about 1,200 people dead—most of them civilians—according to Israeli authorities. Hamas seized hostages during that attack, some of whom are still being held in Gaza.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said the protest movement reflects the “profound feelings that many people have at the suffering that so many people are enduring.” But he also lamented that the protesters weren’t more critical of Hamas and its role in the conflict.


Even as the Biden administration has been increasingly at odds with their Israeli counterparts over the direction of the war, the U.S. government has continued to provide arms to Israel. Last week, Biden signed a foreign aid package that included $26 billion for Israel and humanitarian aid for Gaza and other places.

Polling suggests the Middle-East conflict doesn’t rank as a priority for most Americans, but Biden aides acknowledge that even a small percentage of voters staying at home or voting third party could impact his re-election prospects. 

“It’s the lens through which many disaffected Democrats are evaluating Biden today, and that fact reinforces the point that the status quo is unsustainable here,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates. He said that while the overriding issues for young voters were still inflation and the cost of living, Biden needed to win over young voters in particular given they were critical to his victory in 2020.

“They believe that how he’s handled this to date is not what they thought they were getting in a president that many of them voted for,” Horwitt said.

Natalie Andrews, Gordon Lubold and Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.

Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at and Lindsay Wise at

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