Patience with Biden wearing thin among Black leaders

President Biden speaks at the 10th anniversary of the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Black voters and activists are increasingly frustrated with Democrats and the Biden administration in the wake of the party’s latest failure to advance voting rights legislation.

In his first days in office, President Biden signed a flurry of executive orders to advance equity throughout every aspect of the federal government, but his campaign promises were far loftier, and Democrats have struggled to make good on them.

Now, after nine months during which not a single voting rights bill made it to the president’s desk, pressure is mounting on Biden to turn things around as projections for next year’s midterms start to look bleak for Democrats.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson delivered a stark warning to Biden in a statement released after a failed cloture vote on the Freedom to Vote Act Wednesday afternoon: “Don’t forget that Black voters landed a victory for this President and this Congress, so don’t fail us again.”

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged Thursday that there have been setbacks with both voting legislation and police reform talks, but she highlighted other ways the administration is advancing policies important to the Black community.

Jean-Pierre specifically mentioned investments in historically Black colleges and universities, housing policy reforms and efforts to make equity central to Biden’s American Rescue Plan and other economic proposals.

“Our agenda for the Black community is not about one or two bills. Clearly those bills are critical and important, and we’re going to continue to work very hard towards them, but it is weaved throughout numerous policy initiatives, executive orders, legislation,” Jean-Pierre told reporters during a briefing, adding that “equity” is at the center of everything Biden does as president.

Democrats this session have put forth three bills — the For the People Act, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — aimed at stopping the wave of restrictive voting measures introduced in GOP-controlled statehouses since the beginning of the year.

All three passed through the Democratic-controlled House but have languished in the Senate with little GOP support.

Biden and Democrats have lambasted conservatives for refusing to play ball, but activists and progressives readily point out that Republican support wouldn’t be needed if Democrats do away with the Senate filibuster, an old but frequently used procedural rule requiring 60 votes to both begin and end debate of a bill.

The president has offered broad overtures of support for each of the bills, often pointing out the grave threat new state-level voting laws pose to the country.

During a CNN town hall Thursday evening, Biden opened the door wider to endorsing, altering or eliminating the filibuster to advance voting rights legislation or raise the debt ceiling, after previously supporting a return to the “talking filibuster.” Biden also said he’s resisted getting embroiled in a debate over the filibuster to date because it would jeopardize negotiations over his economic agenda. 

“If, in fact, I get myself into at this moment a debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, foreign policy side of the equation,” Biden said.

Jean-Pierre said Thursday that Biden would continue to speak out on the issue of voting rights and that the White House would work with Congress to advance legislation, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

“This is a priority for him,” she said.

But after Wednesday’s unproductive vote, Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told The Hill that the words of Biden and other Democratic leaders mean nothing without substantive change.

“You either mean it or you don’t. If you mean it, then you’ve got to end or modify the filibuster in order to advance this legislation that you’re so busy telling us is so important. We believe it’s important, but their actions aren’t demonstrating that,” Albright said.

“Everything that we’ve seen and heard from the administration tells us that it simply is not a priority for them, and they don’t think it’s important,” he added. “They think that we’ll just be able to out-organize [voter suppression], and they’re not willing to spend the political capital on getting it passed.”

The idea of filibuster reform has gradually garnered more Democratic support but is still missing Biden’s stamp of approval or the backing of moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), both of whom would have to be on board for the legislative tool to actually change.

Patience among Black voters and activists is wearing thin.

Albright told The Hill the situation is a bad case of déjà vu.

“We’ve been down this path before,” he said. “You tell us that this is the most important election ever. You tell us you got our backs and you’re going to move on our issues. We come out in record numbers, historic numbers — and in Georgia not just once for November but then coming out and doing it again in January — and then you don’t deliver.”

Voter participation was up across the board last election cycle but notably increased among Black and Hispanic voters. In particular, Black voter turnout is thought to have played a major role in the Peach State, where Democrats flipped both Senate seats and Biden secured a tight victory over former President Trump.

Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College, said that Black voters are likely to be disappointed, but he raised doubts about whether that means they will stay home during the midterms while acknowledging concerns about voting laws like the one in Texas restricting turnout.

“I think Black voters are going to be disappointed in the party and in the administration for not showing signs of strength on these issues and not supporting those measures as much as they saw the administration supporting infrastructure,” Smikle said.

“What I don’t know is, will they take it out on Democrats? Will they stay home in the midterms? I don’t know,” Smikle said, adding that Democrats will have potentially accomplished much more by the midterms that could help boost turnout. “But then you run into the issue of, can they vote?”

Albright, however, said voter participation is certain to fall.

“I absolutely promise you that there’s going to be a drop in Black turnout — and not just the regular drop that you see going from a presidential year to the midterms,” Albright said.

“You will see an even more precipitous drop because Black folks are dissatisfied with the ways that we have been taken for granted.”

Further possible evidence of Black voters’ waning patience is in Biden’s declining approval ratings. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll shows that his approval rating with Black Americans fell from 86 percent in July to 64 percent.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill that she shares activists’ frustration over the situation, describing it as at an “all-time high.”

Voting rights, along with a slew of other policies that have yet to pass through Congress, has been a top legislative priority for the Black Caucus this year.

“We should put all tools in the toolbox on the table,” Lawrence said, though she didn’t directly name filibuster reform.

“We’re gonna continue to push [Senate Majority Leader Charles] Schumer, we’re gonna continue to push the Senate and the president and everyone because we know how important it is,” Lawrence added.

Tags Brenda Lawrence Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Karine Jean-Pierre Kyrsten Sinema Voter suppression voting rights voting rights legislation

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