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Biden calls for peace after tense pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After more than a week of silence, President Biden addressed the pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses yesterday.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And he tried for a balanced approach to a divisive issue.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I understand people have strong feelings and deep convictions. In America, we respect the right and protect the right for them to express that. But it doesn't mean anything goes. It needs to be done without violence, without destruction.

INSKEEP: Now, when he said strong feelings, the president meant about Israel's war against Hamas. Many protesters have blamed Biden for supporting Israel. And some students want their colleges to divest from companies that relate in some way to Israel. On the same day the president spoke, police broke up a protest camp at UCLA and cleared protesters from a library at Portland State.

MARTIN: NPR's senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us now to tell us more about all this. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: How would you sum up the president's message?

KEITH: The remarks were only about three minutes long. And the central point was that there has to be balance between free speech and rule of law. There's a right to protest, he said, but not to cause chaos. And he also spoke to the concerns of Jewish students and others who've been verbally attacked or otherwise felt unsafe on their campuses. He said antisemitism is wrong, but so is Islamophobia. Both have been on the rise in the U.S. since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the war in Gaza that has dragged on since then.

MARTIN: So a lot of ideas coexisting here. And this is in a political environment quite obviously dominated by a lot of loud voices and a lot of strong views. Can that work for the president and his fellow Democrats?

KEITH: I talked to Mallory McMorrow about this. She's a Michigan state senator - a Democrat - who understands the dynamics very well in her swing state.

MALLORY MCMORROW: There is space for us to reject the binary that I think Republicans are trying to paint us into and take back the idea that Joe Biden and Democrats are the ones protecting your right to free speech and your right to be safe on a college campus.

KEITH: That does not fit on a bumper sticker or a hat, but it does reflect where Democrats find themselves.

MARTIN: Can I fact-check something with you? Was this really the first time Biden has spoken about this since the protest started kind of really dominating news coverage?

KEITH: You know, he very briefly answered a question about the protest almost two weeks ago. And he said he condemned antisemitic protests but also people who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians. And that was fodder for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this week.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Hard not to see - this mealy-mouthed equivocation of what it is - the president prioritizing feelings of his political supporters over moral clarity.

KEITH: McConnell was essentially accusing Biden of pulling punches because the protesters are, by and large, left-leaning. And Biden very clearly does have a lot of work to do to win over young, progressive voters who are disappointed with his approach to the war. But that did not appear to be the goal of his remarks yesterday. At the end, he was asked whether the protests have forced him to reconsider his Mideast policy, and his answer was a hard no.

MARTIN: OK. So Democrats in several primaries, including swing states - a lot of them in numbers voted uncommitted, apparently to protest that policy. So what might this all mean for the presidential campaign going forward?

KEITH: Republicans have the easier task here and have stayed on message. Democrats are divided over the war in Gaza. But Biden's campaign hopes that most voters won't be making their choice based on that one issue alone.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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