WARREN, Michigan (AP) — President Joe Biden chatted with a friendly union crowd inside a United Auto Workers hall in Michigan on Thursday as pro-Palestinian demonstrators held back by police with riot shields voiced their anger nearby at the president’s full-throated support for Israel in its war with Hamas.
The tension highlighted the challenges ahead for Biden in holding on to this critical battleground state in November over likely rival Donald Trump, and underscored the Democrats’ concerns about flagging enthusiasm among voters who have been key to their coalition.
Biden’s visit with autoworkers making phone bank calls for him ahead of the state’s Democratic primary came just days after union President Shawn Fain announced their endorsement of him. Fain praised Biden’s ties to the working class, saying, “We know who’s been there for labor and who wasn’t,” adding that the union’s mission now is to “keep Joe Biden as our president.”
Biden, who joined striking workers on the picket line last year, replied, “Supporting you is the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
However, Biden’s Michigan schedule did not include any meetings with Arab Americans, adding to increasing frustration over his support of Israel in its war with Hamas as the Palestinian death toll has mounted.
“Why not have a meaningful conversation for how you change course with a community that has first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live in the countries where your decision-making is unfolding?” said Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, one of the largest Arab American communities in the nation.
Despite the White House offering no advance details about Biden’s planned meeting, close to 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were waiting for Biden near the UAW Region 1 building in Warren ahead of his event there. The president’s motorcade bypassed them using side streets.
Protesters chanted “Hey Biden, what do you say? We won’t vote on Election Day” as well as pro-Palestinian slogans, including “Free, free Palestine.”
Amir Naddaf, 34, traveled with friends from Ann Arbor to protest the president’s UAW event after having supported Biden in the 2020 election
“We came here to send a clear message to the administration that they’re not welcome in Michigan,” said Naddaf.
Dozens of riot gear-clad police officers and an armored vehicle kept the protesters from approaching the union hall.
More than 26,000 Palestinians, mostly women and minors, have been killed in Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, mostly civilians, in the attack.
Michigan has shifted increasingly Democratic in recent years, with the party controlling all levels of state government for the first time in four decades. Biden is looking to build on that power as he seeks reelection and the state’s critical 15 electoral votes.
The president faces no serious challenge in the primary, but his campaign is trying to build energy for the tougher fight to come in the fall. Michigan was part of the so-called blue wall of three states — with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that Biden returned to the Democratic column when he won the White House in 2020.
He kicked off his visit to Michigan by meeting with Black religious leaders at They Say restaurant in Harper Woods, outside of Detroit, before thanking autoworkers for their support.
Warren, where Biden met with union workers, is in Macomb County, an area that Democrats lost by a wide margin to Trump in the past two national elections. Biden’s outreach to workers there came amid concerns within the party over rising tension between Biden and Arab Americans in the state, many of them in Detroit’s Wayne County, which is the Democratic Party’s largest base.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One with Biden that senior administration officials will travel to Michigan later in February to hear from community leaders on the conflict in Israel and Gaza. She did not specify which officials or with whom they would meet.
The early endorsement by the UAW was a clear win for Biden, who came to Michigan to stand alongside striking autoworkers last year. His latest meeting with union members comes on the heels of Trump’s visit with another one of the U.S. most influential unions, the Teamsters, in Washington on Wednesday.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., a longtime Biden ally, said Democrats need to tend to a multitude of constituencies in Michigan to hold on to the state in 2024.
“Michigan is a purple state. I say that to everybody,” she said. “Clearly, the Arab American community matters. But young people have to turn out. They were very decisive two years ago in voter turnout. A lot of the union leadership has endorsed the president, but we’ve got to get into the union halls and do the contrast so people really understand what it’s about. And we’ve got to make sure women and independents turn out. You know, we’re a competitive state.”
Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, led a group of campaign advisers to the Dearborn area last week as part of her ongoing effort to meet with core supporter groups around the country. She spoke with some community leaders, but the trip ended abruptly when Arab American leaders declined to show up for a meeting with her.
Ahead of Biden’s visit, demonstrators held a community rally in Dearborn on Wednesday night to protest administration policies backing Israel.
“The people in the Middle Eastern community are not confused. They are crystal clear on how Palestine has been handled versus Israel,” said former Democratic state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who is from Detroit. “Just to come and visit them without changing your positions is not going to move them. African Americans are not confused either. And so you can’t just do visits. A visit is not enough.”
Biden and his aides have said they do not want to see any civilians die in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the U.S. is working to negotiate another cease-fire to allow critical aid to reach the territory.
During an October visit to Tel Aviv, Biden warned the Israelis not to be “consumed by rage.” But the president and his aides have 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.
On Thursday during a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington ahead of his trip, Biden spoke of the threat of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
“Not only do we pray for peace, we are actively working for peace, security, dignity for the Israeli people and the Palestinian people,” he said.
A December AP-NORC poll found that 59% percent of Democrats approve of Biden’s approach to the conflict, up from 50% in November. But Democratic voters in New Hampshire’s primary were roughly split on how Biden has handled the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to AP VoteCast.
___ AP writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
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