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Biden's infrastructure pitch drowned out by Middle East concerns

The president's efforts to reach a bipartisan deal and boost public support was overshadowed in Dearborn, Michigan, by concerns about the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
President Joe Biden speaks after a tour of the Ford Rouge EV Center on May 18, 2021, in Dearborn, Mich.
President Joe Biden speaks after a tour of the Ford Rouge EV Center in Dearborn, Mich., on Tuesday.Evan Vucci / AP

DEARBORN, Mich. — President Joe Biden’s visit to an electric vehicle plant here Tuesday, intended to help build support for his $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill, was instead dominated by conflict half a world away.

The president's decision to highlight his economic plan in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Arab Americans in the country meant domestic policy concerns competed with foreign ones on another day of violence in the Middle East.

That fight was front and center from the moment Biden touched down in Detroit, where he was greeted by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., whose district includes Dearborn and who has criticized Biden for his support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two had a lengthy conversation on the tarmac and when Biden began his remarks at the Ford plant he addressed Tlaib, one of two female Muslim members of Congress.

“I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people, and it's from my heart, I pray that your grandma and family are well. I promise you I’m going to do everything to see that they are in the West Bank,” he said to Tlaib. “You’re a fighter and God thank you.”

Dearborn looked to be an ideal setting for selling the president’s infrastructure agenda: Ford was set to unveil its new F-150 Lightning Pickup truck, an important experiment in expanding the electric vehicle inventory to include mid- to heavy-duty models that remain popular with many Americans. A key piece of Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations across the country and improving American’s competitiveness in the electric vehicle market.

Biden has been ratcheting up efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on the plan, hosting a group of Republicans at the White House last week to try to hammer out the details. A group of key GOP lawmakers are scheduled to meet on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon with administration officials, two aides familiar with the negotiations told NBC.

“We believe we can find a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, and we look forward to hearing more details of their proposal. They are going to submit a counterproposal either later today or tomorrow to me,” Biden said. “But we made one thing clear: We’ll compromise, but doing nothing is not an option. Doing nothing is not an option. The world is not waiting.”

Still, on a day when fighting in the Gaza Strip entered a second week, local Arab American leaders held a news conference before Biden’s arrival and pro-Palestinian demonstrations were planned around his visit. The community leaders echoed sentiments Biden has been hearing from his own party in Congress, with Democrats urging a cease-fire.

“We love the president, we still believe in him. I'm glad he was elected, but we need some, we need some support,” Abdallah Sheik, a spokesperson for the Arab and Muslim Political Action Committee, told NBC News in an interview. “We cannot just every time get disappointed. We elect the right people, then we get disappointed every time something like that comes up, and we don't see like a strong action.”

But during the stop, Biden kept the focus on China, rather than the Middle East. He argued that investing in new battery technologies and supporting the American auto industry in expanding electric vehicle offerings was both an economic and a foreign policy necessity, as China is aiming to corner the market.

“Right now, China is leading in this race, make no bones about it. It’s a fact,” Biden said.

The White House said China has more than doubled its electric vehicle manufacturing since 2010, and continues to stockpile critical supplies for batteries. While China has 800,000 electric vehicle charging stations, the U.S. only has 100,000 — a number Biden wants to increase six-fold with a $15 billion investment as part of his jobs package.

Biden’s visit coincided with Senate action on a bipartisan measure similarly focused on boosting American investment in research and development and addressing supply chain challenges in the face of China’s economic rise. On Monday the Senate voted overwhelmingly to open debate on the measure sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.

Biden defeated Trump in Dearborn by more than 17,000 votes — a greater than 2-to-1 margin — and his vote total was up 23 percent from Hillary Clinton’s four years earlier.

Micho Assi, a humanitarian activist who supported Biden's candidacy, said she saw first lady Jill Biden last year when she campaigned in Michigan.

“People are upset. We want to bring peace,” she said. “We don't want our nation to be the leading nation for war. … When he said Israelis have the right to defend themselves, Palestinians also have the right to defend themselves.”

Traveling to Michigan aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was peppered with questions about the ongoing missile strikes and what more the president was prepared to do to seek a resolution.

“Sometimes diplomacy needs to happen behind the scenes. It needs to be quiet, and we don't read out every component, and we don't read out every specific conversation we have with our partners,” she said.

The Monday call between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was more tense than previous calls, three people familiar with the matter told NBC News. The New York Times was first to report the news Tuesday that Biden took a firmer stance with Netanyahu during that private conversation.

The Council on American Islamic Relations organized a boycott this weekend of the White House’s Eid al-Fitr celebration marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. CAIR’s Michigan chapter said it had not been approached by the White House about a possible discussion with the president while he was on the ground.

"Southeast Michigan is the heartland of the American Muslim and Arab American communities,” said Dawud Walid, CAIR-Michigan’s executive director.

After his public remarks, Biden did find time to get behind the wheel of a Lightning himself, marveling to reporters: “This sucker’s quick!”

Asked if he would answer a question about Israel, Biden demurred.

“No, you can't. Not unless you get in front of the car, as I step on it,” he said.

He insisted he was “just teasing” before speeding off.