Biden’s Morehouse speech exposes his 2024 political problems

Biden’s Morehouse speech exposes his 2024 political problems

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President Biden will set foot on a college campus Sunday for the first time since universities around the country became hotbeds for protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

Biden is delivering a commencement speech at Morehouse College, an historically Black college in Atlanta, a move that roiled students and faculty of the school, whose president said he would end the ceremony before letting police intervene to stop any potentially disruptive behavior.

The speech will see several issues plaguing Biden converge: the uproar over his unpopular foreign policy on Israel among Democrats coupled with his struggles to retain young and Black voters, who will be key to his reelection. And all while in a battleground state he narrowly won in 2020.

“The president giving the commencement speech at Morehouse, before the preeminent Black male college in the country, is a nod to the fact that Black men and young voters are really looking at not voting this election — and he realizes, and the campaign realizes that he has to do something to try to bring them back, bring us back into the fold,” said Georgia-based Democratic strategist Fred Hicks.

Some strategists are skeptical that the crowd at Morehouse might break out into protests on Sunday, but Hicks said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were demonstrations or heckling around the graduation, if not during.

“It’s fraught with risk,” Hicks said of Biden’s appearance, arguing that any protests would also open up the potential for the president’s positive messaging to be “drowned out.”

Many Black Americans, though, have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause as the conflict in the Middle East rages on. A March survey from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace found nearly 7 in 10 Black Americans would have liked the U.S. to call for an immediate cease-fire — and while 42 percent of Black respondents said they didn’t feel connected to either Israelis or Palestinians, 45 percent said they felt connected to Palestinians over Israelis.

The Biden administration, while remaining confident that issues during the commencement speech likely won’t arise, has attempted to get ahead of any potential problems.

Steve Benjamin, head of the administration’s Office of Public Engagement, met with students and faculty at Morehouse College earlier this month. Students during the meeting expressed concern that the president could overshadow the graduation, NBC News reported, and that his address could come off as a campaign speech amid the recent campus controversy across the country.

Benjamin told reporters Thursday that he “talked about everything” with the Morehouse students, and that “the common thread was they wanted to make sure we were centering the young people.”

“People have different thoughts about what they might want to hear,” Benjamin said. “We listened very closely. We received those messages and we shared those with the president and his speech-writing team.”

Benjamin said he’s not concerned about Biden’s address overshadowing the commencement.

“I’m sure the president will have a chance to engage with faculty, staff and students while he’s there, and I know that he looks forward to it,” he said.

Morehouse President David Thomas, though, told CNN that the school won’t allow “disruptive behavior that prevents the ceremony or services from proceeding in a manner that those in attendance can partake and enjoy,” and he said he’d halt ceremonies “on the spot” rather than let police intervene and take people out of the event “in zip ties.”

But Thomas also told The Associated Press that “in many ways, these are the moments Morehouse was born for.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden viewed his speech as a “pivotal moment” for graduates who entered college amid the coronavirus pandemic and are now graduating under the cloud of protests.

“We understand how deeply personal this moment is for many Americans across the country.  We’ve been very clear about that,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.

In speaking at Morehouse, Biden will come face-to-face with a voting bloc he needs if he’s to have any chance at winning the White House again.

A New York Times poll published earlier in the week found Biden leading former President Trump among Black voters, 63 percent to 23 percent, a significant decrease from the 87 percent of Black voters who voted for Biden in 2020.

The poll also found Trump and Biden are only narrowly separated among voters aged 18-29, a group Biden won by double digits in 2020. The campaign has been making a concerted effort to reach both critical blocs.

And in Georgia, a state Biden flipped to blue in 2020 for the first time in decades, polling averages from Decision Desk HQ/The Hill indicate Trump is up there by 6 points, six months out from Election Day.

Biden’s speech comes just as a range of college campuses — from Columbia University to the University of California, Los Angeles — took center stage this spring in demonstrating against the conflict in Gaza, with some demanding their universities divest from entities that support Israel’s military. Protests have also centered on the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza since October, when Israel launched its offensive after that month’s deadly terrorist attacks by Hamas, who killed roughly 1,000 Israelis.

Biden has said demonstrators have a right to protest peacefully, but he has condemned more extreme aspects of the protests, speaking out against vandalism, taking over buildings and canceling commencement ceremonies, which was the case at Columbia University.

Strategists said Biden will have to find the right balance between striking a celebratory tone for the graduates and acknowledging the fraught political moment.

“He’s got to address the tone of the country in general, and that there’s an underlying frustration, an unfinished business,” Hopkins said, “when it comes to addressing civil rights in this country and frankly, around the world.”

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