DETROIT — President Joe Biden will celebrate his recent endorsement by the United Auto Workers union by visiting Michigan on Thursday, but his time in this critical battleground state with the nation’s highest density of Arab Americans threatens to be overshadowed by growing anger over U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza.
Biden’s meeting with UAW workers in the Detroit area will come 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.”
However, the Democratic president’s Michigan schedule does 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.
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.
His visit to Michigan comes ahead of the state’s Feb. 27 primary. 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.
Now, there are concerns within the party over rising tension between Biden and Arab Americans in the state, even as he seeks to capitalize on his support among union members.
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.
Hammoud was one of the leaders to decline to visit with Chavez Rodriguez, calling it “dehumanizing” to focus on the upcoming election when people in his community are losing family members in the war in Gaza. The community is interested in meeting with ”decision makers,” Hammoud said, and that should “have nothing to do with what’s happening this November.”
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.
Concerns about Biden’s handling of the Gaza situation extend beyond the Detroit area. Across the state, Grand Rapids resident Maryte Worm said that better than Biden visiting Arab communities in Michigan would be for him to focus on ending the war.
“I don’t know how we can move on without a ceasefire,” she 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.
Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber who also represents one of the largest Jewish communities in the state, said that when it comes down to Trump versus Biden again, he doesn’t see Michigan voters going back to the Republican.
“Is the situation precarious now? Sure. There’s no question about it,” he said. “But we’re coming really close to that binary choice. It will be Trump and it will be Biden. And I have to have faith in so many people who, number one, don’t want it to be Donald Trump again. And number two, are going to acknowledge Joe Biden’s achievements over the last year.”
___ Long reported from Washington. AP Writer Fatima Hussein in Grand Rapids, Michigan, contributed to this report.