President Biden is facing questions from within his own ranks over his response to the auto workers strike after former President Trump, his probable general election opponent, announced he would talk to workers in Detroit later this month.
Progressives are now turning up the heat on Biden, warning that he risks being undercut by Trump as both sides seek votes from working-class people.
Democrats and union advocates first applauded Biden for using the bully pulpit to express support for the United Auto Workers (UAW) at the onset of the strike. But now, as the White House looks to craft a longer-term strategy for a tricky situation, some on the left are voicing concerns that the response seems “tepid.”
“The political winds forced him that way,” a top confidant to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said about Biden’s response to the picketers, whose efforts against ballooning CEO salaries and stagnant wages have escalated.
“They put the muscle out there now so they can’t really hedge as much. He hedged early on,” the Sanders ally said.
Biden has presented himself as pro-union and, even as a lifelong moderate, has been vocal about the urgency of raising the minimum wage. His modest upbringing has made him a sympathetic figure to workers over the years and helped him win swing parts of the industrial Midwest against Trump.
But some want to see Biden go further for workers as progressives ramp up their own efforts. On Wednesday, members of the Congressional Labor Caucus announced plans to form a picket line on Capitol Hill.
The White House clarified initial plans this week to send Julie Su, the acting Labor secretary, and Gene Sperling, a senior White House adviser, to Detroit to help smooth out the negotiations. Many UAW members didn’t like the even-handed approach and wanted administration officials squarely in their corner. Politico reported that some of Biden’s own supporters want him to appear with workers now that Trump intends to be out front.
The strike is delicate because it involves seemingly competing interests. Some close to the industry argue he shouldn’t alienate giants like General Motors and Ford, while the labor community largely wants him to take their pro-worker position.
Progressives in Congress and activists are making it clear that they aren’t afraid to walk the picket line.
Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D), a “squad” member, called the decision a “no brainer” to strike alongside workers. Tlaib’s immigrant father was a UAW member who worked with Ford Motor Company, one of the three auto corporations targeted by the strike.
“You have to be on the side of people, not profits,” she said in an interview with MSNBC.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a progressive who has a close relationship with Biden and the White House, was in Toledo, Ohio, and Wayne, Mich., this week.
In contrast to Biden, Trump made it clear that he would make a trip to Detroit next week — an unwelcome visit for UAW President Shawn Fain and labor advocates. Fain suggested the event is an affront to what the movement is working against, including fighting off “the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”
The Washington Post reported that some key Biden supporters in the Great Lake State would like him to show up on the ground, and multiple outlets have noted that officials in the White House are deliberating how to handle their next move.
While Biden won Michigan against Trump in 2020, the state is still considered a battleground and the unrest among laborers has offered no assurances that it’s going to be in the Democratic camp in 2024.
Winning back Michigan would offer the GOP a boost that their message of systematic neglect toward workers is resonating and could spell trouble in neighboring parts of the Midwest like Ohio or Pennsylvania.
Another progressive who has voiced regular support for unions is expected to stand alongside angry workers. Unfortunately for Biden, it’s one of his rivals.
Cornel West, who’s running to defeat both Biden and Trump as a Green Party candidate, is heading to Detroit to walk the picket line, The Hill first reported Wednesday.
West’s future trip will put him in stark contrast to Biden, whom Democrats are already worried could be harmed by a third-party spoiler candidate in swing states.
An in-person show of force would likely raise questions about why the president hasn’t appeared when two of his possible November opponents chose to stand with workers.
To the Biden campaign, Trump’s playbook is performative and disingenuous. A campaign official slammed the former president and GOP nomination front-runner’s planned trip while resurfacing his bruising defeat there last cycle.
“Donald Trump is going to Michigan next week to lie to Michigan workers and pretend he didn’t spend his entire failed presidency selling them out at every turn,” Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Biden-Harris campaign, said in a statement. “Instead of standing with workers, Trump cut taxes for the super-wealthy while auto companies shuttered their doors and shipped American jobs overseas.”
“He’s said he would’ve let auto companies go bankrupt, devastating the industry and upending millions of lives. That’s why Trump lost Michigan in 2020 and his MAGA friends further decimated the Michigan Republican Party and cost them 2022,” Moussa said.
While Biden allies are looking to focus on Biden’s top political competition, other Democrats are calling out aspects where he has been shaky.
Some point to previous labor disputes during Biden’s administration as points where he could have gone farther to embrace workers.
“He could have done a lot more for the Teamsters when they were fighting. And don’t even get me started on the rail workers,” the Sanders source said. “This is a moment whose time has come. There were other workers who made lots of sacrifices and movement people for this very profound in-your-face, we’re not going to take it anymore, the economy has failed for working class people, moment.”
“This by itself doesn’t mean a whole lot with all the other things that came before it. This was a build-up,” the source said.
Biden’s also facing a crisis of voter perception. His poll numbers are still low, with many surveys showing Democrats wanting another choice. A closer look at key constituencies also shows possible doom for the 80-year-old incumbent. Young voters and the Black community aren’t enthusiastic about a second Biden nomination, and fears about jobs and the economy continue to dominate voters’ priorities.
The auto strike, to some, had the potential to be a political grenade for Biden.
“He had to come out and say something,” the Sanders ally said. “And even that was tepid.”
Still, not everyone is piling on the president. Some union leaders and workers’ rights advocates have offered encouraging words as final decisions remain in balance.
“The first day of the strike, President Biden addressed the nation saying the Big Three have earned record profits, the autoworkers deserve record-setting contracts,” Mary Kay Henry, leading labor advocate and president of the Service Employees International Union, told The Hill.
For Henry, the problem is not Biden’s to address in isolation, but rather is part of a larger critique about inequality that has persisted over generations.
“No one president can fix the system that’s broken,” she said. “That’s why we have to rewrite the rules of our economy so it actually works for working people.”