Opinion: Biden has a serious problem with young voters

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

After weeks of silence, President Joe Biden finally weighed in on the pro-Palestinian protests that have spread across college campuses nationwide. In his remarks on Thursday, Biden tried to walk a tightrope, mollifying two key campus constituencies: student protesters who are demanding that their universities divest from companies profiting from the Israel-Hamas war, and students who have been sounding the alarm of antisemitism on campus and the occupation of university property.

In doing so, Biden acknowledged the right to protest while calling for order. “Peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues,” Biden said. At the same time, “violent protest is not protected — peaceful protest is,” he added.

Biden went on to say, “People have the right to get an education, the right to get a degree, the right to walk across the campus safely without fear of being attacked … There is no place for hate speech or violence of any kind, whether it’s antisemitism, Islamophobia or discrimination against Arab Americans or Palestinian Americans.”

In the end, the speech came off as a presidential warning to the protesters. “Order must prevail,” the president said, sending a message to voters who he fears are angry about the unrest at universities and colleges across the nation. The message also grows out of his own history in the 1960s, when a younger Biden did not feel much of a connection with the student protesters of the era. “Occupying an office of a dean or something like that is not his style,” one old friend of his recalled.

The speech won’t do much to improve Biden’s standing with the younger voters who have been disillusioned with the administration and unhappy with US support for Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas.

This is part of a bigger political problem he faces with the youth vote. The 81-year-old president understands that he has a problem, as a recent CNN poll shows Biden is trailing Trump by a shocking 11 points among young people, with 40% of voters ages 18 to 34 saying they will vote for him, compared to 51% of voters in the same age group who say they will support Trump. In 2020, exit polls showed 60% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Biden. In a close election where small parts of the electorate in swing states will determine the outcome, a depressed youth vote could be devastating.

Thus far, Biden has primarily tried to address this problem by focusing on various domestic policies to court young voters. Earlier this week, his administration moved to begin the process of reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule III substance. This marks a major change since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance along with drugs like heroin, bath salts and ecstasy.

President Biden’s move follows massive changes legalizing recreational cannabis and medical marijuana in a number of states, where dispensaries seem almost as common as neighborhood pharmacies.

The cannabis reclassification fits a strategy of Biden leaning on domestic policy changes to bolster enthusiasm for the newest generation of voters. The president has also announced a series of measures to reduce student debt.

Most recently, the administration revealed that it would forgive $6.1 billion in student debt for more than 300,000 students at The Art Institutes, a defunct network of for-profit colleges. To date, the Biden administration has managed to forgive about $160 billion in student loan debt for nearly 4.6 million borrowers. He has done so despite the Supreme Court having struck down his most ambitious debt-forgiveness program.

Biden is also trying to win voters on the issue of abortion, especially since Republican-controlled state legislatures have imposed draconian laws either banning or restricting women’s rights to reproductive services. These changes don’t sit well with younger voters who tend to favor broader access to abortion rights.

Biden, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, have taken a strong stand against the legislation that has been passed in states like Florida, where a new six-week abortion ban took effect this week. The administration has issued executive orders directing federal agencies to protect and expand access to abortion pills, and improve access to over-the-counter contraception, including emergency contraception.

Certainly, Biden’s policy moves can have an effect, as polls show that young voters are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues like affordable housing and health care than they are about the Middle East.

Moreover, college students are not united on the protests. There are large contingents who feel that the protests veer too often into antisemitism and ignore the atrocities of October 7. Then there are apolitical students, some of whom started higher education at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, who are now angry that the protests are disrupting their final weeks as students.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake for Biden to wish away the problem, even if the administration will not be changing its actual policy stance in the Middle East. The emotional intensity on display suggests that this has the potential to become an issue that turns young voters away from the ballot box or toward third-party candidates come November. And while many mainstream Democratic voters might not like what they’re seeing unfold on college campuses, Biden needs to grapple with the fact that the majority of Americans now disapprove of Israeli military actions in Gaza.

While his opening salvo on Thursday was about the need for order, Biden will also have to find ways to engage in a national conversation with new generations of voters, as difficult and contentious as it might be. He needs to speak to the students who are peacefully protesting and who have expressed serious concerns about the human toll of the war. Engagement and dialogue on foreign policy and campus culture might be as important for shoring up support with these constituencies as policy changes. As the initial critical response to Thursday’s statement suggests, it won’t be easy, but this is a challenge Biden must undertake in a sustained fashion. He can’t wish away the significance of this issue to many young voters, hoping they will turn their attention to other areas.

In the end, if Biden can’t find ways to respond to the concerns driving campus activists and make them feel heard and represented, the other policy changes might not have much of an effect in terms of winning support. The lesson from the 1968 presidential election is not only that Republican nominee Richard Nixon capitalized on the unrest at colleges and the Democratic National Convention, but also that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, never found a way to convince younger voters that he was listening to what they had to say about the war in Vietnam.

As president, Biden also has to help instill calm on campus and deescalate tensions between police and students. The president is old enough to remember the tragedy of what happened at Kent State University in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a crowd of students protesting the revelation that then-President Richard Nixon had secretly expanded the war in Vietnam by launching bombing operations in Cambodia. Four students were killed.

While Biden might not want to — or be able to — meet their demands, he must continue to engage with student protesters and offer his vision of a viable path forward. If he doesn’t, he might suffer the same fate that Humphrey faced when anger over the war in Vietnam brought his campaign down in 1968.

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