A year after a fiery voting rights speech, Biden delivers a more muted address
President Joe Biden, right, greets Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, center, and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) as he arrives at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023.
By PETER BAKER
When he came to the capital of the South to honor Martin Luther King Jr. last year, President Joe Biden delivered a call to nonviolent arms for voting rights, equating opponents to segregationists and vowing to rewrite Senate rules to defeat them. “I will not yield,” he declared. “I will not flinch.”
A year later, Biden returned to Atlanta on Sunday with little to show for it. He may not have flinched, but he did not succeed, either. None of the sweeping voting rights measures he championed passed the Democratic-controlled Congress last year, and the prospects of any passing a newly elected Republican-controlled House seem vanishingly small.
And so a leader who arguably owes his presidency to the critical and timely support of Black voters in 2020 was left to offer only vague exhortations of hope and no concrete policy plans or legislative strategies. He assured an audience at King’s fabled Ebenezer Baptist Church that its side in the struggle would, indeed, overcome someday.
“At this inflection point, we know there’s a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights and protecting our democracy, and I’m remembering that our job is to redeem the soul of America,” Biden told the appreciative crowd, which included King’s sister, Christine King Farris, and one of his allies, Andrew Young.
“Look, I get accused of being an inveterate optimist,” the president added. “Progress is never easy. But redeeming the soul of the country is absolutely essential.”
Speaking from a church pulpit, Biden eschewed the open partisanship of his speech last year, when he spoke at a university and compared Republicans to George Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood in a doorway rather than let Black students enter a white university; Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, who used police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters; and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy that went to war to defend slavery.
The analogy went over poorly at the time with Republicans, who insisted that the limits they had imposed in many states were intended to secure election integrity and argued that they opposed Democratic-sponsored legislation because it was federal overreach. Even some Democrats fretted that the president “went a little too far in his rhetoric,” as one senator put it last year. Biden defended the comparison but then opted against repeating it or anything like it Sunday.
Nor did he mention eliminating the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, the centerpiece of last year’s speech — and an idea that was defeated barely a week later, when two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, joined Republicans in refusing to go along.
As a result, the legislation, pulling together separate initiatives, went nowhere. The measure was intended to establish nationwide standards for ballot access to nullify new Republican state-level restrictions; establish new automatic voter registration programs; make Election Day a national holiday; and restore elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act stripped away by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Despite Biden’s failure to fulfill his promise of a year ago, some civil rights leaders did not fault him. “Obviously, in the last year we were not successful,” Marc H. Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said in an interview. “I sort of chafe at the idea that we were not successful because Joe Biden didn’t do something or the other. We were blocked.”
Still, even if policy success remains elusive, Morial said he hoped Biden would use his bully pulpit to make the case more often than just on King’s holiday. “I’d like to see the president consistently speak about democracy and voting rights throughout the second half of his first term, not just episodically, because it is one of these fundamental values,” he said.
Aides said there was little Biden could do at this stage without a change on Capitol Hill. “The president has done and will continue to do all that he can do in his executive powers, but there’s only so much that he can do,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta who now serves as a senior adviser to Biden and accompanied him Sunday. “We need Congress to act.”
Some of the steam may have seeped out of the battle over voting rights after the midterm elections in November. While Democrats feared the GOP would rack up victories in part because of voter suppression, Republicans fell short of expectations. They lost a seat in the Senate and picked up far fewer House seats than expected, although enough to eke out a narrow majority.
Among the winners in the midterms was Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and the senior pastor at Ebenezer. Warnock held onto his seat after a runoff election last month, despite new state voting restrictions that Democrats and civil rights leaders widely condemned. He played host at the church Sunday to Biden, who congratulated him on his victory.
Republicans said Warnock’s win demonstrated that the Democratic criticism was overblown. “Georgia’s election system has been challenged and scrutinized and criticized, and passed every test,” Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, said in a statement after the runoff, citing high turnout.
Warnock, however, said in his victory speech that night that he won despite voter suppression. Stories of Georgia voters waiting for hours in long lines that wrapped around buildings, he said, were “most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist.”
Early figures indicated that nationally the Black share of the electorate in the midterm elections fell to its lowest level since 2006, particularly in states like Georgia. Many factors could explain why Black voter participation returned to levels common before the era of President Barack Obama, analysts said. And an examination of the numbers suggested that the lower Black turnout might not have changed the outcome.
But the shift in selected states was striking. In Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina, the average Black turnout rate was 26% lower than among white voters, according to state records, compared with 13% lower in the 2018 midterm elections. Georgia and Louisiana both passed new restrictions before the 2022 elections, while North Carolina did not.
The president, who plans to address the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington on Monday, recalled that King anticipated a constant struggle. “He said, ‘Where do we go from here?’ That’s a quote. ‘Where do we go from here?’” Biden said. “Well, my message to the nation on this day is: We go forward. We go together.”
He pointed to the Catholic rosary on his wrist that he said his son Beau wore the night he died of brain cancer in 2015. “There’s always hope,” Biden said. “We have to believe.”