Biden not a popular topic of discussion among some young, liberal Democrats

ORLANDO — Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) grew animated when talking about using music to draw young people to the ballot box to back candidates supporting abortion, LGBTQ rights and civil rights in Florida and beyond. But when discussing President Biden’s age, he was ready to move on to another topic.

State Rep. Justin Jones of Tennessee was emphatic that national Democratic leaders need to give more attention — and money — to Southern states such as Florida, Texas and Tennessee, which have been ground zero for “regressive and extremist policies.” But he didn’t mention Biden by name when asked about the work to be done in 2024 and how he’s feeling about the election.

And Rep. Greg Casar (D-Tex.), looking to November, said he wants young, liberal voters to be informed about “why we can’t let Donald Trump win this election.” But he said he recognizes that Biden’s “personality is not necessarily the most motivating” to them.

Many Democratic elected officials, activists and voters under 35 have voiced concerns about Biden as he seeks a second term, whether his age, his handling of the Israel-Gaza war or other issues. As they gear up for the November election, some have turned to a range of other topics to generate excitement among their peers. That unease with Biden’s candidacy was on display at the MadSoul Music and Arts Festival here this past weekend, which Frost hosted and which featured a roster of young, liberal elected officials and activists.

“I can’t tell you the number of young people who don’t feel like they want to vote, who are disappointed with how Biden has handled not just domestic issues but, of course, international issues,” Anna Eskamani, 33, a Florida state representative from the Orlando area, said in an interview.

In speeches to a crowd of more than 3,000 and in interviews on the sidelines of the event, young, liberal-leaning elected officials and advocates spoke in impassioned terms about the need to fight far-right extremism, fascism and authoritarianism, often pointing to Republican figures including former president Trump — seen by many as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee — and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But rarely, if ever, did they mention Biden.

Many of the federal and state lawmakers and activists interviewed here said that they plan to support Biden in November and that they are not worried about Trump and other Republicans appealing to young people. What they are concerned about, they noted, is that young voters might stay home.

“It seems like the biggest opponent right now is not Trump, but it’s, like, staying home on the couch,” said Jones, 28.

Biden campaign officials pointed to the contrast they are drawing with Trump on issues such as abortion, health care and gun violence, which they argued will resonate with younger voters. “Elections are a choice and Joe Biden is delivering on issues young voters care about most while Donald Trump runs on an agenda toxic to young Americans,” Eve Levenson, the Biden campaign’s youth engagement director, said in a statement. She added, “Over the next eight months, the President, Vice President, and campaign will meet young voters where they are and continue to draw that sharp contrast so voters understand the choice they face at the ballot box.”

In the interviews, several elected officials and activists sought to pivot away from Biden when pressed for their thoughts on the national political landscape — often pausing or changing the subject.

Asked in an interview about national politics, Frost, 27, was quick to acknowledge Biden’s age (81), a topic he said he is often asked about as the first Gen Z member of Congress.

“Joe Biden’s old. We all know that,” he said, laughing and appearing ready to move on. “What’s next?”

Frost, who serves on the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, said he is concerned about the president’s reelection prospects, recognizing that if the vote were held today, “there’s a lot of people who would stay home.” But he said he remains optimistic about a win come November.

“I’m just trying to play my part,” Frost said. “And it’s to reelect the president, but it’s also to elect good people down ballot, which is really important here in Florida.”

Frost highlighted Biden’s moves to create the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention and launch the American Climate Corps — an initiative to train thousands of young people for jobs in clean energy, conservation and climate resilience — as examples of Biden’s work that are both significant and appealing to young people.

In a sign of some of the discontent on the left, a few hundred protesters demanding an end to U.S. aid to Israel and calling for a “free Palestine” rallied outside the festival. Frost addressed the protesters directly, noting that he is also alarmed by Israel’s actions and calling for a cease-fire.

Frost said he started the festival in 2015 with two friends before he was in Congress, in part as a way to connect “cool and consciousness” to get more young people motivated to vote. Part of the proceeds from ticket sales goes to groups supporting abortion rights, voting rights for Black Floridians and LGBTQ youth, according to Frost’s team.

Biden’s unpopularity among young voters, who tend as a whole to lean Democratic, is a challenge that looms over his bid for a second term. Among Democratic primary voters under 45, majorities say Biden should not be the party’s nominee — with 66 percent of primary voters ages 18 to 29 and 72 percent of voters ages 30 to 44 saying so, according to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll. But the same poll found that majorities of both groups said they would vote for Biden over any other Democratic primary candidate.

A Harvard Youth Poll released in December found that fewer voters under age 30 planned to vote in the upcoming presidential election than they did at that point in the 2020 election cycle.

The festival at a park here Saturday featured musical performances from artists including the indie pop band MUNA and surprise guest Phoebe Bridgers. Prominent Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) spoke. So did “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Groups such as Moms Demand Action and Alianza for Progress set up booths around the park and shared information on issues including gun control, efforts to address climate change and a Florida ballot initiative aimed at ending the state’s six-week abortion ban. People Power for Florida, a voter engagement nonprofit founded by Eskamani, registered 79 people to vote and had 459 people pledge to vote in November, the group said.

Several lawmakers emphasized the importance of down-ballot races when they spoke about the 2024 election.

“I think there are so many elections this year. And so, you know, I even think the most important elections are the ones at the local and state level,” Jones said.

He added that he hopes to see more young people running for office, because “I think that’s what’s going to transform our politics — more multiracial, younger folks, multifaith folks, people who are directly impacted by issues, running to transform these institutions of power.”

Asked if it was harder to make a pitch to young voters with Biden at the top of the ticket, Jones paused. “I don’t know, see, I think we organize based off of policies and not on personality, so, I don’t, you know, like anytime I was organizing, it’s about the principles and the policies, and not about the personalities and so …” he trailed off.

Casar, 34, was candid in acknowledging that Biden is not the best messenger for young people, not just because of his age — the congressman noted the popularity that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), now 82, had among young voters in 2016 and 2020 — but because his personality and demeanor aren’t necessarily exciting to young people. Casar said that’s why it was up to people like him and the other speakers at the festival to be at the forefront of engaging with young voters.

“That’s part of why events like this one become so important, because President Biden isn’t going to be everything to everybody — and I’m not going to ask him to be or expect for him to be,” he said.

Eskamani said that while she was uneasy with the national political mood, she was determined to do what she could in her home state. “I have to control what I can,” she said.

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