Column: Is Biden in trouble with Democrats over war in Gaza? Maybe not

When Israel pounded Gaza with airstrikes after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attack, it opened a dramatic divide among Democrats over a war that has claimed thousands of civilian lives.

Progressive activists staged protests across the country, demanded an immediate ceasefire and accused President Biden of complicity in genocide. A handful of Democrats in Congress joined the call for a ceasefire, but stopped short of blaming Biden for Israel’s actions.

At the height of the offensive, before last month’s week-long pause, polls found that most Democrats and voters under the age of 35 opposed Israel’s offensive, while most Republicans supported it.

An NBC News poll reported that a stunning 70% of young voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the war — and 46% said they prefer former President Trump in next year’s election, with only 42% for Biden. Other surveys found Biden narrowly ahead among young voters, but by far less than the 20-percentage-point margin he scored in 2020 exit polls.

With Biden’s standing already sagging, those numbers suggested that he faced a serious problem among part of his voter base.

But now, strategists and pollsters say, those worries have begun to look exaggerated. The divide among Democrats hasn’t deepened. The progressives’ protests haven’t spread. And the NBC poll appears to have been an outlier.

Most Democrats in Congress have rallied behind Biden’s policy, which combines support for Israel with pressure to minimize civilian casualties and work toward peace negotiations with Palestinians other than Hamas. When progressives in the House of Representatives organized a letter urging Biden to seek a “robust bilateral ceasefire,” only 24 of 213 Democrats signed on — about 11%.

Meanwhile, Biden’s diplomacy evolved. In October, the president rallied international support for Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’ attacks. But after Israel’s airstrikes caused more than 13,300 deaths — a number that now exceeds 15,000 — he went public to urge its leaders to reduce the civilian toll.

Biden administration officials said what looked like a shift was not a response to domestic political pressures, but part of their approach all along. Still, the increasing emphasis on protecting civilians helped defuse the angst among Democrats.

On Friday, Israel resumed its airstrikes after negotiations to exchange more Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners broke down. But Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Israeli leaders had agreed to “put a premium on protecting civilians” and to continue allowing humanitarian aid supplies to enter the war zone.

The war in Gaza may still have an impact on the presidential election, but it may not be as simple as low turnout among Democratic voters unhappy about Biden’s support for Israel.

“Traditionally, foreign policy issues don’t have much visibility in presidential campaigns unless American lives are at stake,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres observed. “But the way a president handles foreign crisis often serves [as] a proxy for his competence and ability to handle the job.”

Ayres noted that Biden’s reputation as a foreign policy expert took a hit in 2021 after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, an episode that appeared to drive the president’s popularity downward.

Trump, who is most likely to be the Republican nominee next year, has already aired a television commercial attacking Biden as “a weak leader,” including video of troops leaving Kabul and of Biden stumbling on the stairs of Air Force One.

Biden might be able to rebut that argument if his diplomacy ends the war in Gaza and opens the way to peace talks. He can already claim some success in preventing the war from spreading to Lebanon or other countries.

Perhaps unfairly, though, voters don’t seem to reward foreign policy success as often as they punish foreign policy failure. President George H.W. Bush helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end in 1991, but he lost his job the next year thanks to a brief recession.

“Biden’s success at rounding up support for Ukraine and Israel has not translated into higher approval ratings at home,” Ayers said. “Inflation, immigration and crime all rank far higher [among voters] than foreign policy.”

Israel’s war in Gaza, and how Biden manages its consequences, will matter. But the race will still hinge mostly on how voters feel about the economy and other domestic issues — not diplomacy.