Biden’s voting rights gamble prompts second-guessing

President Biden spent the past two weeks expending significant political capital in pushing for voting rights legislation that appears doomed to fail in the Senate, prompting second-guessing about whether the White House raised expectations to its own detriment.

Biden responded to calls for action from activists with an impassioned speech urging the Senate to change its rules in whatever way was necessary to pass two federal voting rights bills, a meaningful shift for a president who spent decades serving in the chamber.

But for all the excitement generated by Biden’s speech and his commitment to fight for the cause “as long as I have a breath in me,” the political math was fundamentally unchanged. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema still oppose changing Senate rules, leaving voting rights at a dead end.

“Biden had no choice but to try,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way, pointing to the urgent threat posed by state-level voting laws passed by Republicans after the last election.

“However, Sens. Manchin and Sinema had never wavered in their view about the filibuster, and so I think the expectations might have been raised too high,” Bennett added. “I don’t think it was a mistake to get involved. I do think we have to be careful about not making promises that can’t be kept.”

The efforts are further called into question because of the limited weight voting rights seem to carry with most voters in a midterm year that will largely be decided by the economy and the pandemic.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that while voters support certain changes to election laws, it is not necessarily a top priority for them. 

The poll asked whether reforming Congress’s role in counting Electoral College votes, expanding voting access or expanding oversight of states’ changes to voting laws should be the top priority for Congress. The most popular answer was “none of the above should be a priority for Congress,” with 32 percent. The next most popular answer, expanding voting access, had 26 percent support.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Biden’s approval rating was a dismal 33 percent. And while the White House believes that figure is an outlier, the poll did show Biden underwater with voters on his handling of the pandemic and the economy.

“I would point you to what most data shows you, which is a frustration about COVID and prices,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday when asked about Biden’s approval ratings. “And he’s believed from the beginning that addressing COVID and the economy are number one, two, three, four issues. And that continues to be the case today.”

Biden delivered remarks this week on plans to send out COVID-19 tests to Americans and on initial progress on funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law signed last year. But his highest profile event was a speech in Georgia on voting rights, and he visited Senate Democrats at the Capitol and hosted Manchin and Sinema at the White House on Thursday to discuss the topic.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is still expected to bring the voting bills to the floor in the coming days, forcing members to go on record with where they stand.

Some Democrats are hopeful that once those votes takes place, Biden will refocus on other issues that may be more salient with voters and tout achievements like the bipartisan infrastructure bill, low unemployment and a strong stock market.

“There’s no question that we’ve got to move on to other things and make the broader narrative about why Democrats deserve to be reelected about something else,” said Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House.

While the outcome of the Senate vote on the elections bills is not in doubt, White House officials and activists remain undeterred and believe the fight is worth having.

“Sadly, if we do not address issues of access to the voting booth everything else becomes perfunctory,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino. “Access to the voting booth is the threshold of democracy. That’s the underpinning of it.”

Officials with the New Georgia Project, a voting rights group that urged Biden not to come to the state last week without a concrete plan for passing voting legislation and later praised his remarks, argued the issue is extremely meaningful to Black Democrats in the South, a bloc that helped carry Biden to both primary and general election victories.

“It’s really just about how do we connect the issues to the bigger issue at the end of the day. Because at the end of the day, without voting rights we won’t be able to fix the other issues,” said Brandon Brown, a political analyst with the organization.

The looming defeat on the voting rights bills would mark the latest blow to the White House’s agenda. In the last several days, Biden has seen more troubling numbers on inflation roll in, the Supreme Court rejected his proposed vaccine mandate for large employers and the country is still in the throes of the omicron wave of COVID-19.

Still, the White House is seeking to project optimism and is insisting the fight to strengthen voting rights is far from over.

“If we believed everything every pundit said out there and listened to that, the president would not have run for office, he would not be president, we would not have an infrastructure bill that is law,” Psaki said Friday at a press briefing. “The president is going to stay at it … because he believes that voting rights is a fundamental right for people across the country.”

Tags Charles Schumer Georgia Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema voting rights

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