WARREN, Mich. — President Biden made his first campaign visit to Michigan on Thursday, meeting with members of the United Auto Workers union and visiting a Black-owned restaurant while studiously avoiding any interaction with the large Arab American community in this state, which has been outraged over U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza.
Top Michigan Democrats have pressed Biden for months to spend more time campaigning in their state, but officials have been worried about his visit being overshadowed or interrupted by demonstrators. On Thursday, Biden officials took steps to keep his visit more secretive than usual. They did not publicize the location of his events, and the president’s motorcade avoided protesters by using side streets.
But the visit was not entirely free of confrontation. While Biden was holding a political meeting at a restaurant, a group of protesters chanted “Shame on you,” “Genocide Joe” and “How many kids did you kill today?” The last phrase echoed chants that were aimed at President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.
Biden has tightly embraced Israel as it mounts a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians. Israel’s campaign began after an attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, in which militants surged out of Gaza and killed more than 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took another 253 hostage.
In Michigan, which has one of the nation’s largest Arab American and Muslim populations, with about 300,000 people who claim ancestry from the Middle East or North Africa, the war in Gaza has consumed the community. Many have turned on the president as a result of his unwavering support for Israel and what they see as a lack of empathy for the Palestinians, leaders and residents say. Some Michigan Arabs and Muslims have launched an “Abandon Biden” campaign, part of a broader national effort encouraging members of their community not to vote for Biden.
The Biden campaign did not answer questions about why the president did not engage with members of the Arab American or Muslim communities during his visit Thursday.
“President Biden met today with some of the 130,0000 UAW Michigan workers who endorsed him last week — and to assure them he’ll continue fighting against Donald Trump’s historically anti-worker agenda that closed factories, shipped jobs overseas, and handed the super-rich tax giveaways,” Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Biden’s campaign, said in a statement. “The President’s fight for higher wages and lower costs for middle class families is central to this election.”
She added: “Voters can expect to see the President make many trips to Michigan between now and Election Day, and we look forward to reaching voters across the state.”
Still, the trip highlighted Biden’s dilemma when it comes to Michigan. It is a swing state critical to his reelection hopes, and he will have to court its voters and make regular visits to capture its electoral votes. But the anger of its Arab community means every visit is likely to be accompanied by protests and demonstrations.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday that senior Biden officials will travel to Michigan this month “to hear directly from community leaders on a range of issues that are important to them and their families, including the conflict of Israel and Gaza.” She declined to specify which officials would be traveling to the state or when.
Last week, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, traveled to Michigan, where she planned to meet with Arab American elected officials and community leaders. But some officials refused to meet with her, citing Biden’s resistance to calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.
There are few paths to winning reelection without Michigan’s 15 electoral votes, and Democrats have grown increasingly anxious that the conflict in the Middle East could endanger Biden’s electoral path there. His stance is unpopular not just with Arab Americans and Muslims, but also with many younger voters and people of color.
Even before the conflict, Michigan Democrats were pushing Biden to spend more time in the critical state, with some of them rolling their eyes when the White House announced Biden will make another trip to Pennsylvania, which he has visited far more than any other state in the country outside his home state of Delaware.
On Thursday, Biden celebrated his deep support from labor, which he has long courted, often reminiscing about the crucial support unions gave him in his first Senate race in 1972. Since announcing his reelection campaign in April, Biden has received more than a dozen endorsements from unions, with many throwing their support to him earlier in the presidential cycle than usual, including the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.
“Wall Street didn’t build the middle class,” Biden said while visiting a UAW union hall where workers were volunteering at a phone bank ahead of the Michigan Democratic primary later this month. “Labor built the middle class. And the middle class built the country.”
Biden also held a “kitchen table conversation” with some of the union members about the impact his agenda is having on their lives, his campaign said.
“We’re going to fight like hell, and we’re going to ensure Joe Biden is the next president,” UAW President Shawn Fain said. The union formally endorsed Biden last month.
Biden’s visit to Michigan was also part of the jockeying between him and former president Donald Trump as each tries to present himself as the better friend to working Americans. Biden took the rare step of joining a UAW picket line last September, and Trump recently met with leaders of the Teamsters union.
Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 votes in 2020, after Donald Trump carried the state by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016. Democrats and Republicans in the state expect the margin to be close again this year, and to win Michigan, Biden will probably need strong turnout from Black and Arab American voters.
Last month, a poll from the Detroit News and WDIV-TV found Biden trailing Trump by eight percentage points in Michigan, and only 17 percent of likely voters said Biden deserved a second term. A New York Times-Siena poll in late October found that 22 percent of Black voters in six battleground states, including Michigan, would support Trump if the general election were held today. Four years ago, Trump won just 8 percent of Black voters nationally.
Former Michigan governor James Blanchard (D) said he is confident Biden will win Michigan again, citing his record, the strength of the state Democratic Party’s organization and the UAW’s early endorsement.
Blanchard added that he thought Biden was right to not focus on the Arab American community during this trip.
“At this point, the issues are so emotional, half of them don’t want to meet with him anyway,” he said, adding: “I just don’t think it’s productive to meet with a screaming crowd. The most important thing is that he’s working to solve the serious challenges in the Middle East. We’re lucky to have him. Imagine what would be going on if it was Donald Trump.”
Before meeting with union members, Biden stopped at They Say, a Black-owned restaurant in Harper Woods, where he made the rounds at the bar and tables, smiling for selfies and chatting with patrons.
Taylor Harrell was sitting at the bar eating chicken Alfredo when she saw black SUVs pull into the restaurant’s parking lot. She thought it was a sting operation until she was told the president of the United States was visiting. Harrell, 30, voted for Biden in 2020 and plans to do so again in November.
“People are looking for something to be wrong, and while there are things that need to be improved, we are not as bad off as we were when Trump was president,” she said.
Across the restaurant, Shanelle Gardner, 33, videotaped the president’s every move. A Biden voter, she cited the president’s support for striking autoworkers last fall. Many of her family and friends work for Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, she said, and they got raises after the UAW struck a new deal with the automakers, with Biden’s backing.
“That was something really big the president had something to do with,” Gardner said.
Yasmeen Abutaleb and Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.