One union adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer a blunt assessment, said Trump is “still himself and he’s going to say and do some crazy shit.” But, the person added, “he actually has people who know what they’re doing. He fit Biden in. It was kind of genius.”
Inside the White House and the Biden campaign, operatives scoffed at that assessment. But his public statements, including aggressive criticism of Trump’s record on labor policy, betrayed concerns that the former president could make further inroads among union voters.
And their private deliberations suggested they were still grappling with how the White House should approach the strike.
Biden’s team has privately weighed whether to send a top lieutenant to the picket line to stand with the UAW workers, according to two people familiar with those discussions. The exact details of who might go or where they might travel are unclear.
Still, even as they considered sending a public-facing official to the strike site, the White House was pulling back on a commitment behind the scenes. On Tuesday, the administration dropped its plan to have two Biden aides to Detroit this week to help both sides after union officials complained about it.
The back-and-forth inside the White House over how to handle the strike illustrates the mess Biden is in as talks drag on between the so-called Big Three auto companies and a powerful union that does not endorse Biden for its handling of subsidies for electric vehicles. Although the strike is limited to three plants for now, it could deal a serious blow to the economy if a deal is not reached soon and more workers walk out.
The White House has tried to avoid a prolonged strike while expressing its support for the workers’ demands. But there has been dissatisfaction among Democrats and union officials over his approach, mainly the belief that the president, a self-proclaimed unionist, underestimated the extent of the UAW’s discontent.
There are many unknowns surrounding Trump’s visit to Michigan, including where he will speak and whether he will also show up on the picket line. But his decision to go first surprised some Democrats.
“Trump got us. Now if we announce we’re going, it looks like we’re only going because of Trump,” said one Democratic national strategist. “We’ve waited too long. That’s the challenge.”
Biden campaign officials insist it’s the president who has the upper hand: They argue that Trump’s visit to Michigan gives them an opportunity to remind voters, and union members specifically, of Trump’s record. Indisputably, it is a record that includes broken promises to workers and comments attacking the leadership of the UAW.
In his view, it is Trump who needs to catch up with Biden after the Democrat doubled its margin of victory among union households nationwide in 2020 compared to Hillary Clinton four years earlier.
“Donald Trump’s anti-labor and 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 closing their doors and shipping American jobs overseas while lining the pockets of big corporations and the wealthy.”
Moussa added that any Democratic strategist who thinks it’s good for Trump to offer “an opportunity to remind voters in the Midwest that as president he cut taxes for billionaires … is not very good at strategy.”
Michigan Democrats also criticized Trump for trying to exploit workers and hide his true record.
Trump “is not a person who is going to fight for pay raises, pensions, health care or job security for workers,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told POLITICO. “He said all electric vehicles would be built in China. That’s not fighting to keep the American auto industry competitive in the global market.”
UAW President Shawn Fain, meanwhile, has left no doubt that Trump has no chance of winning his union’s support. In a statement, he said “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 union rank-and-file members in 2016, even as their leaders denied him endorsements. And behind the scenes, there has been tension between the 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 the 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 not to get involved or mediate, the union questioned what its exact role would be, the sources said.
Another source said there was also concern among UAW officials and the companies about the timing of his planned visit. The trip, which was finally scrapped at least this week, was supposed to happen shortly after the strike began.
Fain nodded to the strain on “Face the Nation” this past weekend. “People are talking about trying to interfere in our negotiations,” he said. “Our negotiators are fighting hard. Our leadership is fighting hard. It will be won at the negotiating table with our negotiating teams, with our members leading the picket lines and our allies. Who is the president now, who was the former president or the president before them, he’s not going to win this fight.”
Asked about the change in plans by Biden’s aides, a White House official said that “given that negotiations are ongoing between the negotiating parties, it is more productive for Sperling and Su to continue their discussions from Washington and allow the talks to move forward, and we” I will continue to evaluate travel time based on the active status of negotiations.”
Sperling has been in regular contact with union officials and the companies for more than two months, and that is expected to continue. Su is also in contact with both parties and has stepped up communication with members of Congress about the contract negotiations, including asking lawmakers for their views.
In an interview with POLITICO, Sperling said, “After the previous administration chose to sit on the sidelines and cede the electric vehicle market to China, this president and the Democratic Congress took an aggressive and bold approach to ensure that there will have a significant American footprint. that we are pushing to promote strong, high-paying UAW jobs.”
While some of Biden’s allies are worried about Trump’s visit to Detroit, other Democrats predicted it would fail.
“I think it’s counterproductive,” he said. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “Automotive workers, they know their interests and they know who goes with them.”
Sam Stein and Brittany Gibson contributed to this report.