Joe Biden has been nearly unequivocal in his support for Israel, but he’s trying to steer clear of a volatile conflict roiling his own party over whether presidents of elite colleges should lose their jobs for how they addressed antisemitic rhetoric.
In a marked contrast from the more Bill Clinton- or early Barack Obama-like approach of occasionally wading into complicated political and cultural moments, Biden has largely declined to insert himself into the fracas over the testimony from the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. Each failed during a congressional hearing to decisively denounce calls for genocide against Jews as a violation of their campuses’ codes of conduct.
Biden’s decision to keep his distance reflects long-standing attitudes in the administration that it must be exceedingly careful in the battles it picks — and that in fast-moving situations, staying away from the fray is often the best approach.
Biden has remained unwavering in his backing of Israel and denounced antisemitism on multiple occasions, aides and others familiar with his thinking said, even as it has cost him support from some in his own base. White House allies see little upside in putting the president further in the middle of a raging argument about campus culture and the government’s role in debates over free speech.
That restraint has placed Biden off to the side in an event that has become a which-side-are-you-on test for much of the American elite and big parts of the Democratic coalition.
His White House has made clear he views the calls for genocide of Jews as out of bounds and has stressed that the university presidents should have said so. But the president himself and his team are not joining the calls for resignations and have largely resisted speaking about the departure of Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, where Biden has a center in his name.
“Calling out someone by name and saying they should be fired is the most extreme position you could take,” said one Biden ally in touch with the administration on the issue. “When you take the president’s leadership very seriously, you have to be very careful and understand what messages you’re sending.”
There are already some Biden allies who think he’s gone too far.
Jason Furman, a Biden ally and former top economic adviser to Obama who now teaches at Harvard, warned that the White House had overstepped to a degree by issuing a condemnation of “calls for genocide” following last week’s hearing without specifying what the three presidents had actually said.
The White House statement issued shortly after the presidents’ testimony declared that “any statements that advocate for the systematic murder of Jews are dangerous and revolting — and we should all stand firmly against them.”
“I thought the White House took a cheap shot at the college presidents,” Furman said, conceding that their answers were “poorly phrased” but contending that the resulting coverage had lost any of the nuance of the back-and-forth. “It’s sad to see the White House statement joining a collective and disingenuous misstatement of what was said.”
On Monday, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates called Magill’s subsequent apology for her remarks “the right thing to do,” calling the current moment one for “moral clarity,” but did not directly address her resignation.
There is similarly no appetite to weigh in on the fates of Harvard president Claudine Gay or MIT president Sally Kornbluth, who are both facing calls to step down as well.
Biden and his advisers have kept an eye on the controversies swirling around college campuses, and aides cautioned that the president could always a make a spur-of-the-moment decision to weigh in on specific incidents.
But the internal thinking so far is that universities’ personnel decisions simply don’t rise to the level of presidential involvement — and going after college leaders by name might only complicate the clear position against antisemitism that Biden has already staked out.
In a statement, White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson disputed the idea that Biden had not weighed in on the university presidents and their testimony, calling it “puzzlingly false.”
Several current and former officials also noted that Jewish groups are not pushing for Biden to get more involved, nor is there any consensus even among Biden allies over what should happen next at Harvard and MIT.
Hundreds of Harvard faculty members have signed a petition urging the university not to oust Gay, casting it as critical to upholding the school’s “commitment to academic freedom.”
“The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces,” the letter said.
Many at Harvard have bristled in particular at Rep. Elise Stefanik’s (R-N.Y.) zeal for Gay and Kornbluth to be pushed out, two people familiar with the effort to defend Gay said, arguing that it’s heightened the stakes and turned the question of Gay’s future into a referendum on Harvard’s independence from political pressure. Stefanik, whose questioning at the congressional hearing prompted the blowback now facing the three presidents, reacted to Magill’s resignation by posting, “One down. Two to go,” on X.
Furman said that he has shared some of the concerns often expressed on the right over the handling of free speech issues on campuses. But when it comes to Harvard’s internal decision making, he said administrators “should completely ignore what various politicians have said about who the president of Harvard is.”
One former senior Biden official tracking the controversy agreed, cautioning that Biden deciding to personally insert himself would only further politicize the situation.
“Even if he says something kind of generic, it will be seen as a criticism of [Gay] and that will make things more complicated both for him and for her,” the former official said.
Instead, aides said Biden has sought to keep it simple and leave little doubt where he stands on the issue of antisemitism — an approach that’s won him plaudits across the Jewish community.
“I believe the administration has been clear, they’ve been consistent — and that’s been very important,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League.
More important than how Biden has or has not used his bully pulpit, Greenblatt added, are the concrete actions his administration has taken, including issuing a strategy for combating antisemitism over the summer and launching Education Department-led investigations in recent weeks into several colleges and universities over reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Among those targeted: Harvard and Penn.
“We look to the president to lay out a vision. We look to the president to articulate strategies,” Greenblatt said. “And that’s happened again and again.”