Analysis: Joe Biden puts everything on the line in the battle for voting rights

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Biden’s speech on the issue Tuesday, delivered amid the symbolism of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, was notable for its boldness. The president who introduced himself as a unifier made a blunt argument of good versus evil, suggesting that opponents of his plan are akin to segregationists.

“The right to vote and to have that vote count is the threshold of freedom for democracy. Without it, nothing is possible. But with it, everything is possible,” Biden said during one of the moments. most important of his presidency.

His move all-in on Tuesday underscores Biden’s belief that 12 months after the Capitol uprising, America is at a historic point when its nearly 250-year experiment with democracy could come to an end. More prosaically, it dramatically raises the political expectations of Biden himself. By making bills that are far from certain of passing the cornerstone of his tenure, Biden risks appearing to have failed if his efforts fail. And the outlook looks grim that Biden can change the minds of several moderate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, on filibuster.

So his speech in Atlanta set up an immediate test of political weight for a White House that has grown accustomed to setting legislative deadlines and missing them – in part because of political mistakes as well as the difficulty of working with marginal Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. . The first hurdle looms on Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledging to bring forward proposed rule changes to help bring John Lewis’ Advancement of Voting Rights Act into effect. and the Free Voting Law.

A decisive moment

While Biden has spent months in torturous negotiations in support of his broad national agenda, he never quite staked out the kind of watershed moment he conceived in Atlanta on Tuesday.

History suggests that towering presidential accomplishments often need a Commander-in-Chief to devote massive amounts of prestige to the effort. It is possible that the president could move the needle and create the conditions for success that would considerably strengthen his reputation and his track record.

But if Biden fails to persuade Manchin and Sinema to drop their opposition to changing Senate rules with a simple majority, he will emerge as a leader who cannot even control his own party. His failure would also bode ill for his chances of having the same pair on board to finally adopt his social spending and climate plan Build Back Better, which would cement his reputation as a daring reformer. And the political atmosphere would be ruinous, as Biden would be portrayed as a weak leader, who failed to implement his own agenda and warned that democracy could be eclipsed but could do nothing about it. The narrative of a struggling presidency would grow and could seriously damage Democratic enthusiasm in what is already shaping up to be a difficult midterm election year.
In some ways, the surge in voting rights and the Build Back Better plan represent the last big legislative chance for a president who already has a bipartisan infrastructure law and a $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 bailout at its assets, which are always clouded by its failure to exceed its most ambitious goals.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledges to make the chamber virtually ungovernable if the rule change is successful. Even if it isn’t, the conditions are bad enough already. The midterm elections looming in November are already reducing the limited time for meaningful legislative progress. This November, Republicans could win the House and their leader, Kevin McCarthy, signals that he will use his possible presidency as a weapon of revenge for former President Donald Trump. The GOP could also capture the Senate, leaving Biden isolated for the last two years of his tenure.

A changed president

Tuesday’s speech also marked a development for Biden as president. He leaned on his skyrocketing speech on the first anniversary of the Capitol uprising last week in what now looks like a political reset after six difficult months.

Even as vice president and in the early months of his presidency, Biden often appeared as a creature of his beloved Senate. Now, his willingness to embrace the obstructive changes he’s always opposed marks a big step away from the bedroom he loves and his idealized take on his courtesy and customs.

The Atlanta speech was notable for the same kind of harsh, blunt language Biden used to denounce Trump’s authoritarian impulses in Statuary Hall on the January 6 anniversary last week. Biden appears to have come some distance before being the unifying force he embodied in his inaugural address last year that helped produce the bipartisan infrastructure law. Perhaps his most important bet in Tuesday’s speech was the clarity of the language he used to call out to anyone who opposes his plan.

“I ask all the elected Americans, how do you want to be remembered? Biden asked, arguing that important moments in history present a choice.

“Do you want to be on Dr. King’s side or George Wallace’s side?” Biden asked. “Do you want to be on John Lewis or Bull Connor’s side?” Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? ”

“Now is the time to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”

It seems unlikely that Manchin, who has already shown a thorny side and a sensitivity to affronts during the long battle over the Build Back Better plan, will change his position based implicitly on the comparison with the segregationists. The West Virginia senator made it clear before Biden spoke that his position – that rule changes should not be passed in the Senate by simple majority – had not changed.

“You change the rules with two-thirds of the people there, so it’s the Democrats, the Republicans who change the rules to make the place work better; getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it run better,” said Manchin to reporters.

Hurry up

Unless Schumer and Biden can craft some sort of compromise solution that would allow Manchin to say he stuck to his guns – or the weight of effectively sinking one of the bills he has drafted himself starting to weigh on West Virginia – his stance, as reported on Tuesday, would stop the Bills in their tracks.

The possibility raises the question of whether Biden’s striking language on Tuesday was not just meant to persuade, but was also a cover to protect his position if it failed.

While the president made a bet with the force of his appeal, the political consequences of doing nothing would have been deeply damaging. This is because many Democrats and independent election analysts believe the party’s chances in future elections are in jeopardy due to attempts by GOP-led, Trump-inspired states to make it harder to vote and influence more. easily the election results.

If Democrats can't get on with their platform now, they might not get another chance for years to come.  here's why
Many liberals are still concerned that Biden came too late to battle and should have acted immediately on voting rights upon entering the White House at the height of his political power. A coalition of Georgian voting groups made it clear on Tuesday, refusing to appear at Biden’s speech, saying they were done with “photo-ops”.

Instead of acting a year ago on voting rights, Biden spent months hesitating to break the limited cooperation that existed in the Senate to get the infrastructure bill passed, as the basis for his calls for national unity. (However, the president’s critiques do not explain how tackling voting rights first would have solved the Manchin-Sinema conundrum or alleviated the inability to live in a 50-50 Senate. ) But for the sake of his own credibility after a period of his approval ratings plummeting, as the pandemic dragged on and inflation increased, the president had a political imperative to be fighting and bold. right now.

And he was also under pressure to be steel to black voters, many of whom seem likely to suffer the most from the GOP-led voter suppression in the states. Black Democrats saved Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 as it was on the verge of running out. Black voters will be key to Democratic hopes in November – especially in Georgia, where there is a Senate race that could decide the chamber’s fate, and a race for top-tier governor. The sight of a president ready to fight could also be crucial in the broader Democratic coalition, as the party needs its main voters to show up in large numbers to limit Republican gains in November. Biden’s prospects for re-election in 2024 also hinge on a feeling his presidency is energetic and combat-ready.

In short, Biden had little choice but to act like his own. The perilous resonance of the moment for Democrats, with voting bills stalled in the Senate, was summed up by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was with him in Georgia.

“We don’t know when we will have this opportunity again,” she said.

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