White House draws ire of progressives amid voting rights defeat

When Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) came out in favor of a procedural debate over voting rights legislation on Tuesday, he offered a symbolic showing of Democratic Party cohesion. 

But before GOP senators blocked the bill later in the evening, progressives had already started grumbling about the White House, demonstrating that public and private resentment toward President Biden had been mounting all day.

“We’re past the point where we’ve lost faith that he’s going to do it on his own,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, about Biden’s approach to the Capitol Hill fight over the For the People Act.

Albright took Biden to task early into his term when he urged the newly elected president to prioritize election reforms ahead of other policy issues. He’s since been campaigning around the country with a cohort of organizers to emphasize the gravity of the situation on the ground.

Activists like Albright were perplexed after watching Biden give wide-ranging speeches on other areas of his agenda and embark on a national infrastructure tour. He wondered why infrastructure in particular took precedence over loudly defending a basic democratic concept. 

“Where’s your voting rights tour?” Albright said, offering frustration ahead of the Senate vote. “People have already started to call this out. That’s just going to escalate.”

Progressives have been generally more critical of aspects of the Biden administration than their moderate counterparts. That occasional opposition came into full view on Tuesday when one freshman congressman openly called for more engagement and robust leadership from the White House.

“The president needs to lead out front and be very vocal on this issue,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said during an interview with CNN.

The remarks from Bowman, a Black, first-term member who is part of the “squad” of young progressive Democrats, were among the strongest expressed by a group of progressive lawmakers now targeting Biden in addition to Manchin, fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and the vast majority of the GOP. 

“Our democracy is in crisis and we need @POTUS to act like it,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter, repeating his earlier criticism about the president’s purported lack of focus.

One leading liberal organization took the position that Biden has effectively been dodging the issue on the public stage and condemned the president’s limited speaking schedule.  

“What you’ve seen from those of us advocating for democracy is a hope that the president would come out swinging,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of Indivisible, which has been targeting Biden with a sharp focus this week.

Early into his administration, there was a belief among many progressives that after Biden plowed through the American Rescue Plan without Republican support, he might replicate that tactic with voting rights. That would happen only if he could convince Manchin and Sinema to join the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus and end or reform the filibuster. 

Historically, Levin pointed out, past presidents on both sides of the aisle have managed to check off some of their key legislative priorities. So far, Biden is a notable exception on this issue, he said. 

“Trump got his tax cuts. Obama got his stimulus. George W. Bush got his tax cut. Clinton got his paid Family and Medical Leave Act,” Levin said. “Up until this point, aside from a statement here and there, aside from a line in a speech … the president has been pretty absent in the democracy fight.”

The White House rebuked the notion that they have not pursued the topic forcefully. 

“Those words are a fight against the wrong opponent,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said when questioned during an afternoon briefing about Bowman’s critique. Like other Democrats willing to give the president grace, she sought to redirect the attention to the opposing party. 

Psaki elaborated by reiterating the president’s “passionate” championing of voting protections during his career in politics. “He’s absolutely revolted by the wave of anti-voter laws based on the same repeatedly disproven lies that led to an assault on our nation’s capital,” she said.

Minutes before the Senate convened to vote, the official White House Twitter account sent out a tweet providing a brief update about the status of Biden’s work with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Today, @SenSchumer and I held our latest strategy call on getting the For the People Act to my desk,” the tweet read. “Democrats are united and committed to passing this landmark legislation to protect voting rights, ensure the integrity of our elections, and repair and strengthen our democracy.”

Schumer also used strong language to condemn the party-wide blockade from Republican senators, positioning them with former President Trump’s debunked theory of widespread election fraud.

“Once again, Senate Republicans have signed their names in the ledger of history alongside Donald Trump, the ‘big lie,’ and voter suppression, to their enduring disgrace,” he said.

The majority leader and aligned Democrats cautioned that more time is needed before declaring reform efforts doomed. 

“President Biden has been very outspoken about sounding the alarm about the threats to democracy that we face and the need for legislative fixes,” said Norm Eisen, a former high-ranking Obama administration official and co-founder of States United Democracy Center. 

“While I understand and applaud the sense of urgency that my fellow activists are bringing to that, everyone needs to bear in mind that this is a long process.”

Brett Samuels and Alex Gangitano contributed to this report.

Tags biden administration Chuck Schumer Donald Trump For the People Act Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema progressives voting rights
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