Analysis: Joe Biden puts it all at stake in the battle for the right to vote

Biden’s speech on the subject Tuesday, held amid the symbolism of the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement, was notable for its boldness. The president, who stood as a unifier, put forward a bluntly good versus evil argument, suggesting that opponents of his plan are akin to segregationists.

“The right to vote and get that vote counted, that is the threshold of democracy. Without it, nothing is possible. But with it, anything is possible,” Biden said in one of the most important moments of his presidency.

His decision to go all-in on Tuesday underscores Biden’s belief that 12 months after the Capitol uprising, America finds itself in a historic moment where its nearly 250-year experiment with democracy may end. More prosaically, it raises markedly political expectations of Biden himself. By making bills that are far from certain to pass the cornerstone of his tenure, Biden risks looking as if he has failed if his efforts fall short. And the prospects are slim for Biden to change the minds of several moderate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, on the filibuster.

So his speech in Atlanta put an immediate test of political influence for a White House that has made it a habit to set legislative deadlines and ignore them – in part because of political mistreatment as well as the difficulty of working with marginal democratic majorities on the Capitol Hill. The first hurdle is already threatening Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer committing to introduce proposed rule changes to help usher in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act.

A make-or-break moment

While Biden has spent months in complicated negotiations in support of his comprehensive domestic agenda, he has never really postponed the kind of make-or-break moment he developed in Atlanta on Tuesday.

History suggests that towering presidential achievements often require a commander-in-chief to commit enormous amounts of prestige to the effort. It is possible that the president could move the needle and create the conditions for success that would strengthen his reputation and record significantly.

But if Biden cannot persuade Manchin and Sinema to drop their opposition to changing Senate rules by simple majority, he will emerge as a leader who cannot even control his own party. His failure would also herald badly for his chances of getting the same couple on board to finally pass his Build Back Better social spending and climate plan, which would cement his reputation as a daring reformer. And the political atmosphere would be devastating as Biden would be portrayed as a weak leader who failed to implement his own agenda and who warned that democracy could be darkened but could do nothing about it. The story of a struggling presidency would grow and could do serious damage to the democratic enthusiasm in what is already taking shape as a tough midterm election year.
In some ways, the voting rights pressure and the Build Back Better Plan represent the last major legislative opportunity for a president who already has a bipartisan infrastructure law and $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue package on his record, which is still overshadowed by his inability to reach their most ambitious goals.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promises to make the House almost ungovernable if the rules change gambit successfully. Even if it does not, the conditions are difficult enough. Midterm elections looming in November are already limiting limited time for meaningful legislative progress. In November, Republicans can win the House of Representatives, and their leader, Kevin McCarthy, signals he will use his possible rostrum as a weapon of revenge for ex-President Donald Trump. The GOP could also capture the Senate and leave Biden isolated for the last two years of his term.

A changed president

Tuesday’s speech also marked a development in Biden as president. It built on his soaring speech on the anniversary of the Capitol uprising last week in what now looks like a political reset after a tough six months.

Even as vice president and in the first months of his presidency, Biden often still came across as a creature in his beloved Senate. Now, his willingness to embrace filibuster changes, which he has always opposed, marks a major step away from the chamber he loves, and his idealized vision of its courtesy and customs.

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The speech in Atlanta was remarkable for the same kind of sharp, blunt language that Biden used to proclaim Trump’s authoritarian impulses in the Statuary Hall on the anniversary of January 6 last week. Biden seems to have traveled some distance from being the unifying force that he embodied during his opening speech last year, and which helped bring about the two-part infrastructure law. Perhaps his most significant bet in Tuesday’s speech was the clarity of the language he used to shout at anyone who opposed his plan.

“I ask all the elect in America, how will you be remembered?” asked Biden, arguing that subsequent moments in the story provide a choice.

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

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

It seems unlikely that Manchin, who has already shown a stinging side and a sensitivity to small things during the long battle over the Build Back Better plan, will change his stance based on being implicitly compared to 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 present, so it’s Democrats, Republicans who change the rules to make the place work better; getting rid of the filibuster does not make it work better,” he said. Manchin for journalists.

Time is running out

Unless Schumer and Biden can create some sort of compromise solution that would allow Manchin to say he was holding on to his weapons – or that the weight of effectively sinking one of the bills he drafted himself is beginning to push on West Virginia – his position, as set out on Tuesday, would stop the bills in their tracks.

That possibility raises the question of whether Biden’s striking language on Tuesday was not only intended to persuade, but was also a safeguard to protect his status in the event of failure.

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

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Many Liberals still worry that Biden arrived late for the fight and should have acted immediately on voting rights as soon as he entered the White House at the height of his political power. A coalition of suffrage groups in Georgia made clear their dissatisfaction on Tuesday and declined to attend Biden’s speech, saying they had finished “photo-ops”.

Instead of acting a year ago on voting rights, Biden spent months reluctantly breaking the limited cooperation that existed in the Senate to pass the Infrastructure Act as the basis for his calls for national unity. (The president’s critics, however, do not explain how tackling the right to vote would have first removed the Manchin and Sinema riddle or made it impossible to live in a 50-50 Senate.) But for the sake of his own credibility after a period in which his approval ratings fell , as the pandemic dragged on and inflation rose, the president had a political demand to show struggle and boldness at this moment.

And he was also under pressure to demonstrate steel to black voters, many of whom appear to suffer most from GOP-led voter repression in the states. Black Democrats saved Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 when it was on the verge of blowing up. Black voters will be critical of democratic hopes in November – especially in Georgia, where there is a Senate race that could decide the fate of the House and a high-profile governor race. The sight of a president ready for battle may also be crucial in the broader Democratic coalition, as the party needs its core voters to show up in large numbers to limit Republican progress in November. Biden’s prospects for re-election in 2024 also depend on a sense that his presidency is energetic and battle-ready.

In short, Biden had little choice but to act as his did. The momentous dangerous resonance of the Democrats, with voting rights stuck in the Senate, was summed up by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was with him in Georgia.

“We do not know when we will get this opportunity again,” she said.

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