The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters

President Biden is in a perilous position with a group he has relied upon for support up until now: Black voters.

The president’s belated push for voting rights legislation crescendoed with a big speech in Atlanta on Jan. 11 — and faded out just as fast.

The cause of police reform has slipped away, too. Congressional efforts to reach a bipartisan deal on the issue went nowhere last year. Biden quietly abandoned a campaign pledge to create a national police oversight commission back in April.

Then there is COVID-19 and inflation. Those twin troubles have had a negative impact on Biden’s standing with the population at large. But they are felt with added sharpness in the Black community, which suffers from long-standing inequities of health and wealth.

To be sure, none of this means that Black voters are going to turn toward the GOP. 

African American voters have cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats for decades — a dynamic that has its roots in the party’s support for the civil rights struggle and the calculated efforts of leading Republicans such as former President Nixon to capitalize on white backlash. 

There’s not going to be a sea change anytime soon, especially when many Blacks see Republican-led efforts to enact stricter election laws as a new twist on the old tactic of disenfranchisement.

But Biden and his fellow Democrats need to maintain sky-high support and enthusiasm among the Black community if they are to have any real chance of counteracting long-standing GOP advantages with other groups, notably white seniors and whites without a college education.

There are plenty of signs of trouble. An NBC News poll released Thursday showed Biden’s approval rating among Black Americans having slid markedly, to 64 percent approval now from 83 percent nine months ago. 

Other surveys have shown broadly similar trends for a while. A HIT Strategies poll in November showed Biden’s net  approval among Black voters slipping from +76 percent to +66 percent since June.

The numbers speak to a disappointment some Black voters feel with Biden, especially given that support from within their community was so crucial to putting him where he is. 

Now, some are wondering what their community has got in return.

“I don’t think he has lived up to a lot of the campaign promises that he made, especially given the role of Black voters in helping him become the president of the United States,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist who is also a former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP.

“We pointed out issues related to mass incarceration, to economic inequality, of course, and to what is in the news now with the push to advance voting rights,” Armstrong added. “I feel like Biden is basically doing the bare minimum in terms of being attentive to the needs and issues facing the Black community.”

Those kinds of criticisms would rankle Biden, who takes personal pride in his record of solidarity. At his first news conference of 2022 on Wednesday, Biden responded to a question about declining Black enthusiasm by insisting, “I’ve had their back. I’ve had their back my entire career. I’ve never not had their back.”

Biden has said that the civil rights movement was central to his political awakening. He can also point to two major firsts — his loyal service as vice president to former President Obama, the nation’s first Black president, and his own selection of Vice President Harris, the first Black woman to hold the office, as his running mate.

There have also been times when Biden’s words have got him into hot water on matters of race, however. 

Way back at the start of the 2008 election cycle, he described Obama as “articulate” and “clean,” terms that were widely seen as patronizing. In 2012, he ill-advisedly told a largely Black audience that Republicans were seeking to “put y’all back in chains.”

Even his Atlanta speech drew some criticism — from party colleague Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as more conservative voices — for drawing a parallel between opponents of voting rights legislation and historic villains such as Confederate leader Jefferson Davis and Alabama segregationist Bull Connor.

Still, many prominent Black leaders welcomed that speech as a long-awaited show of passion on the issue from Biden. 

Among them was the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton told this column that he was glad Biden had focused on the Senate filibuster as he sought to get the legislation passed — even if the effort was not ultimately successful. 

The civil rights activist and MSNBC host blasted the public positions adopted by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who expressed support for the underlying legislation but opposed the rule change that would have enabled it to pass.

“That’s like me saying, ‘I want everyone to have dinner, but don’t use the stove to cook,’” Sharpton said.

Civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries argued that Biden and his aides “could do a much better job of communicating his wins” to Black voters.

“Too much of the media environment is focused on what has not happened. … The president and his team have to be much more clear and much more crisp about what he has done,” he said.

On the plus side of the ledger, Jeffries pointed to issues such as the expanded child tax credit, the pause on student loan payments and investments in clean-water infrastructure, all of which he said would disproportionately benefit Black Americans.

He also cited Biden’s appointment of Black judges to the bench and his nomination of figures steeped in civil rights to high-ranking roles in the Department of Justice (DOJ).

But that is not enough for figures such as Armstrong, who called what Biden has done so far “a drop in the bucket in comparison to the significance of the issues we are facing.”

There could be a way back into Black voters’ hearts for Biden. 

Sharpton suggested a three-pronged approach on voting rights, for example: breaking the original provisions of the proposed legislation into smaller parts, having the president explore more expansive use of executive orders, and the DOJ going after alleged violations of civil rights law more aggressively.

But the way ahead does not look easy or certain, even if those measures were attempted. Even a moderate lapse in Black turnout could doom many congressional Democrats in November.

For Biden and Democrats, the warning signs are flashing red.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.