WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s efforts to spotlight his big infrastructure plans are suddenly being overshadowed by the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the conflict sparking protests during his visit to a Ford electric vehicle center in Michigan on Tuesday as the White House faced growing pressure to intervene.
Biden, who planned to use the two week-stretch before Memorial Day to build Republican support for his $2.3 trillion package, visited a Ford plant in Dearborn on Tuesday to make his case that his plans could help steer the country toward a bright electric-car future.
But any presidential script is subject to real-world rewrites, and Biden faces rising pressure to weigh in more forcefully to stop the Middle East violence — as, by a scheduling quirk, he visited a city that is almost half Arab American.
The Ford Rouge plant is in a section of Dearborn that’s estimated to be more than 90% Arab American Muslim, many of the locals strong supporters of Palestinians. Significant protests took place across the city while Biden was there.
In a speech at the plant, Biden made only passing mention of the conflict, warmly addressing Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, as she sat in the audience, saying he would pray that her grandmother and other family were well in the West Bank.
“I promise you I’m going to do everything to see that they are,” said Biden, who met Tlaib and fellow Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell earlier at the Detroit airport where all three huddled in conversation on the tarmac for several minutes.
The Biden administration has been conducting what it calls quiet diplomacy while declining to press for an immediate cease-fire by close ally Israel and Hamas. But privately, Biden administration officials have encouraged the Israelis to wind down their bombardment of Gaza.
Officials have been told by the Israelis that the operations could conclude in a matter of days.
The White House has made the calculation the Israelis will not respond to international resolutions or public demands by the U.S. and that the greatest leverage is behind-the-scenes pressure, officials said. At the same time, the White House is mindful that the longer the conflict goes, the greater chance of a very-high-casualty event or other provocative action by either side that could make reaching a cease-fire more difficult.
All the while, Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes continued for a ninth day. At least 213 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel have died.
To this point in Biden's young term, foreign policy has taken a backseat. The president has stressed the need to first focus on domestic matters — taming the COVID-19 pandemic and reshaping the economy — to prove that democracies can still compete with global autocracies, namely China.
But the intractable conflict in Gaza has derailed that narrative.
Aboard Air Force One for the flight to Michigan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was peppered with questions about the administration's response to the violence before she was asked about electric cars. She defended Biden's cautious approach to this point.
“He’s been doing this long enough to know that the best way to end an international conflict is typically not to debate it in public," she said.
During his tour of the Dearborn facilities Biden kept the focus on jobs, the car enthusiast marveling at new technology — he even took a truck for a quick test drive — while stressing the importance of his infrastructure plan.
“The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back,” Biden said. "The real question is whether we’ll lead or we’ll fall behind in the race to the future.”
There were protests outside in Dearborn, which is 47% Arab American, most of them Muslim, the highest percentage among cities in the U.S. Outside the local police department, about three miles from where Biden spoke, hundreds of people of Arab descent chanted, “Free, Free Palestine!” and waved Palestine flags. Amer Zahr, leader of a group called New Generation for Palestine, said Biden is “not welcome in Dearborn today.”
“He is funding the murder of our families," Zahr said. "It’s ethnic cleansing. It’s that simple. This is not very complicated."
Biden wanted to orient his foreign policy around American workers, but the Israel conflict has underscored the challenges in combining his domestic and international agendas. The violence has not just been a disrupter of his messaging but also of his policy foundations.
The Biden White House has prided itself on message control and carefully scripting its approach to legislation. The first two months of his term were focused on passing the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill and dramatically increasing the nation's vaccination program.
The pivot was then to Biden's two-part infrastructure and family plan, which totals roughly $4 trillion. The president has set a soft deadline of Memorial Day to gauge whether there is Republican support. Not one GOP lawmaker backed the COVID bill, though it had strong public support. There have been a few, if fleeting, signs of possible Republican support for the infrastructure plan.
Last week, a group of Republican senators met with Biden and were set to again sit down with White House officials and Cabinet members on Tuesday. There are some hopes for bipartisan agreement on hard infrastructure — like highways and broadband — before Democrats push forward their family plan on a party-line vote. At minimum, aides have said, they want to make a show of reaching across the aisle to reassure moderate Democrats leery of pushing through massive spending bills using a legislative strategy that bypasses Republicans entirely.
Biden's plan would help transform the automotive sector by making vehicles more mainstream that don't burn gasoline. He also sees a shift toward electric vehicles as a major part of his plan to fight climate change, and his visit came the day before Ford was expected to release details of an all-electric version of its F-150 pickup truck called the Lightning.
The president also has to overcome a major hurdle before his electric vehicle, zero emission future becomes reality: the lack of stations where people can plug in and juice up their engines. To that end, Biden has proposed $174 billion for electric vehicles. That money includes rebates and incentives for consumer purchases, along with money to build 500,000 charging stations by 2030.
The White House says the U.S. has just a fraction, about one-third, of the electric vehicle market share that China has, and far fewer public charging points — and needs to catch up before it can take the lead.
At Ford, its F-Series pickups — including heavy-duty versions — have been the top-selling vehicles in the U.S. for 39 straight years. Last year, the company sold more than 787,000 of the trucks, even though it had to close factories for eight weeks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The F-150 Lightning electric truck, due in showrooms in the middle of next year, will come at a time when only a few Americans have been willing to switch away from gasoline-powered vehicles. Through April of this year, automakers have sold only 107,624 fully electric vehicles in the U.S.
Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington, Tom Krisher in Detroit and video journalist Mike Householder in Dearborn. Boak reported from Washington. Lemire from New York.