Some Joe Biden allies fear that Donald Trump is outmaneuvering them on the auto workers’ strike with his decision to head to Detroit for a speech next week.
Democrats close to the White House said they saw Trump’s trip as a plainly cynical ploy to gain political advantage from the current United Auto Workers strike at three plants. But they also worry it is a sign that the ex-president had a more sophisticated campaign than in previous cycles — and that Biden’s operation needs to step it up.
“We should not underestimate Donald Trump. He’s a survivor and this is going to be a very hard-fought campaign,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of Biden’s national advisory board who was in Wayne, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio, on Monday with UAW members. “We need a message to working-class Americans. Right now, they’re still hurting in terms of gas prices, food prices, housing costs, utilities costs, and they don’t feel like their wages are going up fast enough, and they feel like the very wealthy are getting too much of the rewards. That’s what I heard on the picket lines.”
A union adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to offer a blunt evaluation, said Trump “is still himself and will say and do crazy shit.” But, the person added, “he actually has people who know what they’re doing. He boxed Biden in. It was kinda genius.”
Inside the White House and Biden campaign, operatives scoffed at such an assessment. But their public utterances — including aggressive criticism of Trump’s record on labor policy — betrayed concern that the former president could make further inroads among union voters.
And their private deliberations suggested that they were still grappling with how the White House should approach the strike.
Biden’s team has privately weighed whether to dispatch a top lieutenant to the picket line to stand alongside the UAW workers, according to two people familiar with those discussions. The exact details of who might go or where they could travel are unclear.
Yet even as they considered sending a public-facing official to the site of the strike, the White House was pulling back on some behind-the-scenes engagement. On Tuesday, the administration scrapped its plan to have two Biden aides head to Detroit this week to help both sides after union officials complained about it.
The back and forth within the White House over how to handle the strike illustrates the jam that Biden finds himself in as talks drag on between the so-called Big Three car companies and a powerful union that is withholding its endorsement from Biden over his handling of electric vehicle subsidies. Though the strike is limited to three plants for now, it could deal a serious blow to the economy if a deal isn’t reached soon and more workers walk out.
The White House has been trying to avoid a prolonged strike while expressing support for the demands of the workers. But there has been brewing dissatisfaction among Democrats and union officials over their approach — mainly, a belief that the president, a self-professed union diehard, underestimated the degree of the UAW’s discontent.
There are many unknowns about Trump’s visit to Michigan, including where he will speak and whether he will show up to the picket line as well. But his decision to go in the first place startled some Democrats.
“Trump scooped us. Now if we announce we’re going, it looks like we’re just going because of Trump,” said a national Democratic strategist. “We waited too long. That’s the challenge.”
Biden campaign officials insist that it’s the president who has the upper hand: They argue that Trump’s visit to Michigan gives them a chance to remind voters — and union members specifically — of Trump’s record. Indisputably, it’s a record that includes unfulfilled promises to workers and comments attacking UAW leadership.
In their view, it’s Trump who needs to catch up to Biden after the Democrat doubled his margin of victory among union households nationwide in 2020 compared with Hillary Clinton four years prior.
“Donald Trump’s anti-worker, anti-union record is one of the key reasons Michigan rejected Trump in 2020 and sent Joe Biden to the White House,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the Biden campaign. “His failed presidency is defined by auto companies shuttering their doors and shipping American jobs overseas while lining the pockets of the wealthy and big corporations.”
Michigan Democrats also slammed Trump as attempting to exploit workers and hiding his true record.
Trump “is not a person who is going to fight for pay increases, pensions, health care or job security for workers,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told POLITICO. “He just said all EVs would be built in China. That is not fighting to keep America’s auto industry competitive in the global marketplace.”
UAW President Shawn Fain, for his part, has left no doubt that Trump doesn’t stand a chance of landing his union’s endorsement. In a statement, he said that “every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”
But Trump was able to win over many rank-and-file union members in 2016, even as their leaders denied him endorsements. And behind the scenes, there has been tension between UAW and the White House in recent days.
Last week, during a speech on the UAW strike, Biden announced that he was sending White House senior adviser Gene Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su to Detroit. Their goal was to help the union and auto companies reach a contract, but they would not intervene, the Biden administration said.
But UAW officials were frustrated by Sperling and Su’s plans to head to Michigan, according to two people familiar with their thinking. Despite promises that they would not get involved or mediate, the union questioned what their exact role would be, the sources said.
Another source said there was also a concern among both UAW officials and companies about the timing of their planned visit. The trip, which was ultimately scrapped for at least this week, was set to come soon after the strike began.
Fain nodded to the tension on “Face the Nation” this past weekend. “People are talking about them trying to interject themselves into our — into our negotiations,” he said. “Our negotiators are fighting hard. Our leadership’s fighting hard. It’s going to be won at the negotiating table with our negotiating teams, with our members manning the picket lines and our allies out there. Who the president is now, who the former president was or the president before them, isn’t going to win this fight.”
Asked about the Biden aides’ plans changing, a White House official said that “given that negotiations are ongoing between the negotiating parties, it is most productive for Sperling and Su to continue their discussions from Washington and allow talks to move forward, and we’ll continue to assess travel timing based on the active state of negotiations.”
Sperling has been in regular contact with union officials and businesses for more than two months, and that is expected to continue. Su is also in touch with both sides and has stepped up her outreach to members of Congress on the contract negotiations, including asking lawmakers for their opinions.
While some of Biden’s allies are concerned by Trump’s visit to Detroit, other Democrats predicted it would flop.
“I think it backfires,” said. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “Autoworkers, they know their interests and they know who stands with them.”
Sam Stein and Brittany Gibson contributed to this report.
Evan Massoud is a political analyst with a knack for dissecting policy and governance. He provides readers with informed perspectives on political developments at home and abroad. Evan’s dedication to civic engagement extends to volunteering in local politics.