Watch CBS News

Joe Biden celebrates his UAW endorsement in Detroit, where Arab American anger is boiling over Gaza

Joe Biden celebrates his UAW endorsement in Detroit, where Arab American anger is boiling over Gaza
Joe Biden celebrates his UAW endorsement in Detroit, where Arab American anger is boiling over Gaza 03:25

WARREN, Michigan (AP) — President Joe Biden celebrated his recent endorsement by the United Auto Workers union by visiting Michigan on Thursday, but growing anger over U.S. support for Israel's war in Gaza in the critical battleground state with the nation's highest density of Arab Americans meant for a shaky reception for the Democratic president.

While Biden chatted inside a union hall with autoworkers making phone bank calls for him ahead of the state's Democratic primary, about 150 pro-Palestinian demonstrators loudly protested outside as police with riot shields kept them away.

Biden's meeting with UAW workers in Detroit came just days after union President Shawn Fain announced the group's endorsement. Fain underscored Biden's ties to the working class in advance of the president's visit, saying in a statement: "The UAW knows where we stand, and who stands with us — Joe Biden."

Election 2024 Biden
President Joe Biden, center, speaks with patrons at They Say restaurant during a campaign stop Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Harper Woods, Mich. Evan Vucci / AP

However, Biden's Michigan schedule did not include any meetings with Arab Americans, adding to increasing frustration within a key voting bloc over his full-throated support of Israel in its war with Hamas.

"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 details about Biden's planned meeting, close to 200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators were waiting for Biden outside the UAW Region 1 building in Warren ahead of his event there, but 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, "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free"

Dozens of riot gear-clad police officers and an armored vehicle kept the protesters from the union hall.

The White House and many Jewish groups have criticized the "from the river to the sea," chant as a call to dismantle the state of Israel, as espoused by Hamas which killed more than 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 more, mostly civilians, on Oct. 7. Many Palestinian activists say they are not calling for the destruction of Israel, but for equal rights and protections for Palestinians throughout the land.

Inside, Biden greeted autoworkers who were phone-banking ahead of the state's Feb. 27 presidential primary.

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 far 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 the visit by meeting with Black faith leaders at They Say restaurant in Harper Woods, outside of Detroit.

Warren, where Biden was to meet with union workers, is in Macomb County, an area that Democrats lost by a wide margin to Donald Trump in the past two national elections. Biden's outreach to workers in the Republican-leaning county comes 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 Donald 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. 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.

"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 ceasefire 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.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.