Biden finds uneven footing with Black voters
President Biden finds himself on uneven footing with a key constituency that delivered him the White House — Black voters — one year into his presidency.
Black leaders and pollsters say that Biden has delivered on some key promises for the Black community, but they say that enthusiasm has dampened due to a lack of action on some legislative priorities, including police reform and voting rights, in the 50-50 Senate.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has urged Biden to get more aggressive on voting rights, said the current situation could foretell a “turnout issue” for Democrats in the 2022 midterms if they can’t convince Black voters that they are trying to deliver on such promises.
“Part of what motivated Black voters last year was, one, we wanted to get rid of Donald Trump, and, two, we wanted to get voting rights and the George Floyd Act,” Sharpton said in an interview. The lack of progress on both bills, he said, “has dampened some of the enthusiasm.”
Should there be a Biden vs. Trump rematch in 2024, it is likely Democrats could see a higher turnout among Black voters in their favor. Despite Biden’s approval ratings declining across the board, including among African Americans, most Black voters still back the president more than they do Trump.
“In general, Black voters, like all voters, are discouraged at where we’re at and discouraged that more is not getting done,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who polled for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “It’s more discouragement with the Democratic Party than Joe Biden.”
Democrats and Black leaders say there is plenty for African American voters to be happy about. They point to Biden’s diverse Cabinet and judicial nominees, his coronavirus response and efforts to address health disparities, and provisions in the infrastructure law to expand broadband and get rid of lead pipes.
But other elements of Biden’s legislative agenda are stalled.
Bipartisan discussions around police reform legislation collapsed in September, months after the House passed legislation named after George Floyd. The discussions failed despite widespread demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality across the nation following Floyd’s death.
Numerous attempts by Democrats to pass election reform bills have been blocked by Republicans in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance most legislation.
Biden’s sweeping social and climate policy bill, which advocates say contains numerous provisions that would aid minority communities, is also stalled in Congress.
Mondale Robinson, founder of the Black Male Voter Project, said that Democrats are in danger of losing votes from Black Americans who are issue voters but not necessarily party loyalists. Robinson said that bloc of voters were responsible for the 2020 victories in Georgia and elsewhere, warning these voters could stay home in the midterms.
“The Democratic Party has a serious problem on their hands because everything they told these voters was possible got put on the back burner as soon as they got into office,” Robinson said.
Sharpton said Biden and Democrats must better communicate to Black voters that they are working to advance priorities like voting rights, even if those efforts ultimately fail.
“They’ve got to convince them that one, they’ve made every effort to deliver,” Sharpton said. “And, two, they need to be on the ground relating and meeting with people, validators that they trust, not just party officials.”
Democrats say they are leaning on the progress that Biden has made ahead of the 2022 midterms. That includes, for instance, highlighting the Justice Department’s prohibition on chokeholds, efforts to improve maternal health and combat housing discrimination, and a new $8.7 billion lending program for minority-owned small businesses.
The White House recently distributed a lengthy fact sheet highlighting several executive and legislative actions the government has taken to advance racial equity.
“There has been incredible progress that is night and day with the previous administration,” said Lucas Acosta, Democratic National Committee coalitions director and senior spokesperson.
Acosta said the DNC is dedicating new focus to communities of color through its coalitions and community engagement department launched over the summer. He said the party is increasing advertisement spending in communities of color and spending $5 million on voter registration targeting efforts. The DNC is also spending $20 million to hire staff to push back against “problematic” state voting laws and diversify its talent pool of campaign staff, Acosta said.
“Having more people of color in these spaces is going to shift the thinking in a lot of campaigns across our party and that’s going to be absolutely critical in reaching voters of color,” Acosta said.
Silas Lee, a pollster and sociology professor at Xavier University, said it will be important for Biden to cut through the volume of information and misinformation in order to reach African American voters.
“African American voters are overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty given the times we are in – COVID, economic uncertainty, voter suppression,” Lee said. “There remains a cloud of optimism from African American voters. The key in terms of invigorating that optimism is communication.”
“They feel that [Biden] is doing the best he can considering the circumstances,” he said. “Certainly they would like for the president and his supporters to be seen and heard more.”
Black leaders have called on Biden to be more forceful in a push for voting rights legislation, including by backing filibuster reform so that Democrats can overcome GOP opposition.
During a recent interview with ABC News, Biden said he would support creating an exception to the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation in the event of continued GOP stonewalling. But achieving such reform may require Biden to put more pressure on two moderate Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — who aren’t on board with altering Senate rules.
“President Biden brings as much experience on how the Senate functions, what moves Senate members, than any other president perhaps than President [Lyndon] Johnson. He is skilled in the art of the Senate procedure and process,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson in a recent interview. “It’s not for me to instruct what he should do, it’s for me to push for him to do something.”
Sharpton said that he wants to see movement on voting rights legislation by Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the end of January.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) indicated in a recent letter to caucus members that the chamber would take up voting rights bills once they return from recess next month.
Asked about the timeline, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that Biden was committed to moving the legislation forward but declined to lay out a timeline.
“I’m not going to give a new timeline or an additional timeline from here,” Psaki said. “We’ll be working in lockstep with Leader Schumer’s office in moving it forward.”
Johnson also said that it is critical for Biden to build on efforts to close the wealth gap, including by addressing the student loan crisis, in the new year.
“While there has been tremendous gains and opportunities that he’s allowed for many across the country, there’s still work to be done,” Johnson said. “We’re only one year into his administration and after this first year the priority must be to protect the right of voters, address the student loan crisis, and really continue to drill down on closing equity gaps.”
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