NANTUCKET, Mass. — On a cold, crisp night here, a Christmas tree was sparkling after the annual tree-lighting ceremony. A choir had sung, spirits were high. President Biden and his family stood, smiling and cheering.
Then, at the conclusion, a group of protesters unfurled signs that read, “Free Palestine.” “Biden Biden, you can’t hide!” they yelled. “We charge you with genocide!”
One man rang a bell to drown them out, while another man at the microphone said it was a community tree-lighting and — while he respected their right to free speech — asked them to stop. They didn’t. Music on the speakers, playing “Here Comes Santa Claus,” was turned up loud, but it was not enough to drown out the chants.
The incongruent scene was a reminder that Biden, even on an island far from Washington for the Thanksgiving weekend, can now go few places without encountering pro-Palestinian protesters. Over the past several weeks — including last Thursday at another tree-lighting ceremony outside the White House, where some attendees chanted “Genocide Joe!” — nearly every public event has meant confrontation in more direct ways than he has faced during much of his presidency.
Protesters have interrupted the president’s speeches, placed bloody handprints near the front of the White House, appeared near his Wilmington, Del., home, gathered outside his fundraisers and lined the streets traversed by his motorcade. The demonstrators deploy similar signs and chants and are increasingly using direct action to voice their displeasure with the president’s handling of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
There have also been occasional public displays of support for Biden’s policies, including at a large march supporting Israel held in Washington in mid-November.
In both cases, the activism showcases how much the war in Gaza is shaping the public discourse as Biden seeks to rally Democratic support ahead of his reelection bid.
While foreign policy does not typically swing presidential elections, the ubiquity of the protests over Biden’s handling of the war could make it harder for him to deliver his pitch for a second term, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“If the protests endure or escalate, they will draw more attention to problems that this White House — any White House — is ill-powered to fix,” Riley said. “If the region continues to roil, that will inevitably have an effect on domestic audiences in the United States, none of which is good for a president.”
Citing the unrest faced by former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon during the Vietnam War, Riley said there’s a risk that “persistent protests undermine the sense of confidence and equanimity of the president and his people.”
The scale of the Israel-Gaza protests so far has not remotely approached that of Vietnam War years, when Americans themselves were being drafted. And the White House has taken pains not to criticize the protesters, many of whom represent key constituencies that supported Biden in 2020, including younger voters and Arab Americans.
“People have a right to protest,” Vice President Harris told reporters last month. “We are a democracy and we should value the voices and listen to the voices.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
At the same time, White House officials have defended Biden’s record against some of the harsher attacks from activists, who say the president is complicit in the Israeli campaign that has left more than 15,000 Palestinians dead and leveled much of the Gaza Strip. They have sought to remind the public about the terror unleashed by Hamas on Oct. 7 and the continued threat posed by the group.
Asked about the “Genocide Joe” moniker, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “We’re not worried about nicknames and bumper stickers,” but he questioned the sentiment behind the label.
“People can say what they want on the sidewalk and … we respect that,” he told reporters last month, before adding that the term “genocide” is being used too casually. “What Hamas wants, make no mistake about it, is genocide. They want to wipe Israel off the map.”
Officials have also noted that Biden has received public displays of praise for his strong support of Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack, which killed at least 1,200 Israelis. He has also been cheered for his administration’s efforts to negotiate the release of hostages held in Gaza and his personal efforts to ensure that aid flows into the besieged region. Biden himself has tried to make such points when faced with hecklers, who have increasingly disrupted his events.
Speaking late last month when the pause in fighting went into effect, Biden argued that he has done all he can to protect the innocent. “I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons: to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and, two, to facilitate the release of hostages,” he said.
Biden added that he has pressed Netanyahu to reduce the number of civilian deaths, but he reiterated that Israel has the right to wage war on Hamas. “I’ve encouraged the prime minister to — to focus on trying to reduce the number of casualties while he is attempting to eliminate Hamas, which is a legitimate objective he has,” Biden said.
Still, Democratic operatives have been unnerved by the fact that much of the activism is emanating from groups and individuals who were strong Biden supporters in 2020.
Eva Borgwardt worked as a field organizer for Biden’s 2020 campaign in Arizona, spurred by the belief that a second term for President Donald Trump posed an “existential threat” to Jews and other marginalized communities. As the spokeswoman for the IfNotNow Movement, a group of Jewish Americans opposed to Israel’s actions in Gaza, she has defended the use of protests against a president she has supported in the past.
“That’s why we’re protesting: We need President Biden to be the leader he promised he would be and to push for a cease-fire, hostage exchange, and a long-term political solution that ensures equality, justice, and freedom for all Palestinians and Israelis,” she said.
Harris, too, has faced protests, including from groups she has been trying to court.
Speaking in Houston on Monday, Harris talked about the need to build a coalition against Republican efforts to take away “our freedoms and rights.” She added a shout-out to one part of that cohort.
“I love Gen Z,” she said, praising young people’s activism on issues ranging from climate change to social justice. “What I have found and learned is that they, on each and every one of these issues, are not going to be satisfied until things are done.”
Outside the venue, a group of activists — including members of Gen Z — held signs that read “Stop Funding Genocide” and “Free Occupied Palestine.”
Ahead of a fundraiser Harris attended in Los Angeles on Nov. 20, a group of about two dozen people blocked cars and yelled “shame on you” as attendees entered the event. Fake blood was thrown in front of the residence, and red handprints were placed on the ground.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Oct. 31, a group of protesters held up their hands and called for a cease-fire.
White House officials note that many of the protests are small and say they do not necessarily represent broad public opinion. An NPR/PBS/Marist Poll in mid-November, for example, found that 61 percent of Americans sympathized with the Israelis, compared to 30 percent with the Palestinians. Still, a growing number — 38 percent — said Israel’s military response to the Hamas attacks has been too much.
Biden’s aides say the public opposition has not affected the president’s ability to do his job. He has kept up a traditional schedule, including traveling to Georgia and Colorado this week to attend a memorial service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter and tout his economic agenda. En route to the memorial service, Biden’s motorcade passed pro-Palestinian protesters with signs saying, “End all aid to Israel.”
While Biden has faced protests and disrupters before — including climate activists who have occasionally interrupted his speeches — his handling of the war in Gaza has spurred a more sustained series of demonstrations, and they show no signs of slowing down.
A large group of hundreds of protesters gathered outside the White House on Oct. 20, shouting, “Cease-fire now!” and “Biden Biden, you can’t hide!” Biden’s motorcade, en route to a fundraiser, traveled away from the protest.
At a large pro-Palestinian rally outside the White House on Nov. 4, red handprints were placed on the gate. Asked whether the president thought that was appropriate, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “Obviously not. Obviously not.”
At the start of an event on Nov. 9 in Belvidere, Ill., focused on autoworkers, the president was interrupted by a woman who yelled out, “Mr. Biden, you need to call for a cease-fire in Gaza!”
“No, no. Let her go. It’s okay,” Biden said, as the crowd tried to drown her out and she was escorted away. He then returned to his prepared remarks. His events later in the day also attracted protests, with a large group outside a fundraiser waving Palestinian flags and yelling loud enough to be heard from inside.
Quieter forms of protest have also been notable. The poet Rupi Kaur publicly rejected an invitation last month from the White House to attend a Diwali celebration hosted by Harris, citing objections to the administration’s support of Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Inside the administration, staffers have debated whether to resign and some officials have signed letters and cables to voice their displeasure with the situation in Gaza.
But the increasingly routine public demonstrations provide an especially visual reminder of the dissent, especially for a White House that sees itself as a champion of the vulnerable and disadvantaged. That could affect “the psychology and self-image of the White House,” Riley said, adding: “It may be that the most powerful influence of the protests will be on the morale of those charged with fixing the problem. And that could make the next year very difficult.”