Throughout the summer, the Progressive Change Institute, a prominent grassroots organization aligned with Democrats, teamed up with the White House to promote President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. The group helped organize events across the country, including in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, to publicize one of the president’s most popular proposals: a crackdown on unnecessary or hidden consumer charges popularly known as “junk fees.”
The institute was encouraged by how much positive local-media coverage the events generated, taking it as a sign that a concerted campaign could lift the president’s lackluster approval ratings ahead of his reelection bid. Its leaders were eying a second round of activity this fall to amplify Biden’s record on lowering prescription-drug and child-care costs.
Since October 7, however, those plans are on hold. Many progressives are protesting the administration’s support for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, which began after Hamas’s massacre of more than 1,200 Israelis and has left more than 16,000 dead, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry. On perhaps no other issue is the gap between Democratic leaders and young progressives wider than on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “It’s just a reality that the Middle East crisis is a superseding priority for many activists and takes oxygen out of the room on other issues the White House needs to break through on,” Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute, told me. “We’ve let that be known.”
Biden had hoped to extend a fragile week-long truce that the United States helped broker between Israel and Hamas, during which Hamas returned dozens of hostages it had captured on October 7 in exchange for the release of three times as many Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. But now that cease-fire has ended. And the president’s advocating unconditional aid to Israel and his embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war aims have fractured the Democratic coalition that Biden will need to reassemble in order to beat Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner for 2024.
The president had won over many of his critics on the left—the institute’s campaign arm, for example, had backed one of his more progressive rivals, Senator Elizabeth Warren, in the 2020 Democratic primary before supporting Biden—with his run of domestic legislative victories during his first two years in office, including a major climate bill last year. Now left-wing groups that worked to persuade and turn out key constituencies in 2020, especially young and nonwhite voters, are participating in demonstrations against the president’s Middle East policy rather than selling his economic message.
“Our public communications have been transformed by this moment,” says Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, which initially endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2020 but spent the general-election campaign mobilizing progressive voters for Biden in swing-state cities such as Phoenix, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.
The Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy group associated with the Green New Deal, has never been a big fan of Biden. But its leaders worked with the White House over the summer as the administration developed the American Climate Corps, an initiative to train 20,000 young people for jobs in the clean-energy industry. When Biden announced the program in September, the Sunrise Movement hailed it as “a visionary new policy.” Two months later, the group joined activists holding a hunger strike outside the White House in protest of Biden’s support for Israel’s offensive. Given the president’s stance, “we cannot explain his policy to our generation, and that makes it very difficult for any of his administration’s good deeds to resonate,” Michele Weindling, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, told me.
Young people in particular have soured on the president, a big factor in poll results showing Biden trailing Trump in a potential 2024 general election. Voters under the age of 30 backed Biden by 24 points in 2020, according to exit polls; some surveys over the past few weeks show Biden and Trump nearly tied among the same cohort.
“Man, it is jaded right now among this generation,” Elise Joshi, the 21-year-old executive director of Gen-Z for Change, a group of social-media activists that organized under the banner of “TikTok for Biden” during the 2020 campaign, told me. Young voters’ disenchantment with the president predates October 7; they have long been more likely than older people to rate the economy poorly, and the Biden administration’s approval earlier this year of oil and natural-gas projects in Alaska and West Virginia frustrated younger climate activists. But anger toward the president erupted once Israel began shelling Gaza. “There’s been a surge since October 7,” Joshi said. “When it comes to Gaza, there’s little optimism that there’s much of a difference between the Democratic and the Republican Party.”
Biden, along with his party’s most powerful members of Congress, have broadly supported Israel’s war against Hamas despite their discomfort with Netanyahu’s conservative government. That stance is in accord with polls of the general public, but not with the views of more liberal voters. In protests on college campuses and elsewhere, left-wing demonstrators have denounced Israel as an apartheid state waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing—or worse—against the Palestinians. “Instead of using the immense power he has as president to save lives, he’s currently fueling a genocide,” Weindling said of Biden.
When the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC)—the political affiliate of the Progressive Change Institute—surveyed more than 4,000 of its members in early November, just 8 percent said they supported the actions of the Netanyahu government, and more than two-thirds wanted Biden to do more “to stop the killing of civilians.” In Biden’s support for Israel, many young progressives see a Democratic president giving cover to a far-right leader whose bid to weaken Israel’s judiciary sparked enormous protests only a few months ago. “There is a serious disconnect between arguing that you are a bulwark against authoritarianism at home and then aligning with authoritarians abroad,” Mitchell told me.
When asked for comment, the Biden campaign touted the continuing support of a wide array of “groups and allies from across our 2020 coalition” that it considers essential to reelecting the president next year and have not been reluctant to help the campaign over the past two months. In addition to the immigrant-advocacy group America’s Voice and the abortion-rights PAC Emily’s List, those groups include youth-led organizations who say that, as the election nears, opposition to Trump among Gen Z will easily outweigh concerns about Biden’s support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza. “Joe Biden and Donald Trump are like night and day for young people,” Santiago Mayer, the 21-year-old founder of the Gen Z group Voters of Tomorrow, told me. “I can’t really be convinced that both of these candidates have an equal chance of winning over young people.”
In a national Harvard University poll of 18-to-29-year-olds released yesterday, just 35 percent of respondents said they approved of Biden’s performance overall. And only 25 percent said they trusted Biden to handle the Israel-Hamas war, less than the 29 percent who said they trusted Trump on the issue. But this survey had better news for the president than other recent polls: In a hypothetical head-to-head 2024 matchup, Biden led Trump by 11 points, and that advantage grew to 24 points among those who said they will definitely vote next year.
NextGen America, a young voter group founded by the billionaire Tom Steyer, endorsed Biden’s reelection over the summer. Its president, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, pointed out that polls show that young voters prioritize inflation, climate change, and the prevalence of gun violence over foreign policy. But she told me that the level of opposition to Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war was significant. “We encourage the administration to listen to the concerns that young people have on this issue,” Ramirez said.
Biden has shifted his rhetoric in the past couple of weeks, acknowledging the high civilian death toll in Gaza and intensifying pressure on Israel to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid and agree to a pause in the fighting. Last Tuesday, he angered pro-Israel hawks with a post on X (formerly Twitter) quoting a passage from a speech he had recently delivered. In context, it was a push for a two-state solution, but devoid of that context, many read it as a push for an extension of the cease-fire in which he appeared to equate Israel’s military offensive with a campaign of terror. “To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek,” the president wrote. “We can’t do that.”
Pro-Palestinian progressives told me they view the change in language, as well as Biden’s involvement in brokering the short-lived truce, as evidence that their activism is working. But their goal is a permanent cease-fire that will allow Palestinians to return to—and in many cases, rebuild—their homes in Gaza and resume their push for statehood.
None of the activists I interviewed was certain about how lasting the political damage Biden has suffered among progressives will be. Elise Joshi said she had seen a rise in young people vowing on TikTok not to vote for Biden. “We’re almost certain that we’re going to have the same 2020 choices,” she said. “But whether we’re excited to vote or have people who don’t feel comfortable showing up or feeling too jaded to show up to vote is dependent on this administration.”
The election, however, is still nearly a year away. And interest groups often warn about their voters staying home partly as a way to pressure a presidential administration to change course. Should the war end in the coming weeks or months, the issue is likely to fade from the headlines by Election Day. Groups like the PCCC and the Working Families Party aren’t threatening to withhold support for the Democratic ticket when the alternative is Trump. In previous presidential races, early polls have shown tighter-than-expected margins for Democrats among young and nonwhite voters only for those groups to come back around as the election neared. “It’s not Will the coalition show up? It’s At what rate?” Mitchell told me. “Today,” he continued, “I’m looking at a fraying coalition that needs to come together.”