The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The movement that made Biden deserves more from him

Voting rights activists at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 2. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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Civil rights leader Ella Baker said of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s: “The movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement. This is not a discredit to him. This is, to me, as it should be.” The same dynamic exists in politics, where broader shifts can get overly credited to a single individual. And the idea applies to the Biden presidency, too.

A movement to both defend America’s democracy and make it more democratic got Joe Biden to the White House. He and his team should never forget that.

The mythology around Biden’s ascent, one sometimes propagated by those around him, is that rank-and-file Democrats begged Biden to run because he was the party’s best bet to defeat Donald Trump. He heeded that call, brilliantly avoided the left-wing positions taken by other primary candidates and then flipped states such as Wisconsin with his singular appeal to White swing voters. In this view, Biden and his team uniquely have their finger on the pulse of the electorate — so other Democrats should trust their instincts on, say, the value of reaching bipartisan agreement on infrastructure or being cautious on filibuster reform.

But the reality is different. The day after Trump was sworn in, women across the United States led massive marches warning about the dangers of his presidency. Then, protesters swarmed airports across the country to oppose Trump’s attempt to ban Muslims from entering the United States and filled town halls to help sink the Obamacare repeal. Two years of anti-Trump action culminated in unusually high turnout for the 2018 midterms, with many anti-Trump independents and onetime Republicans joining Democrats to force Republicans from power in the House. The anti-Trump, pro-democracy movement didn’t endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary that came next. Biden’s win was only an upset because early on, he seemed poised to squander a huge asset none of his rivals had — having been the second-most prominent person in the Democratic Party for eight years.

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Once the primary was over, the broad pro-democracy movement revved up again, first for one of the largest series of protests in U.S history following George Floyd’s killing and then for the massive Election Day turnout that ultimately gave Democrats total control in Washington.

Because Trump had a huge base of support, the 2020 electoral college result was still fairly close. It’s indeed possible that Biden, an older White man with a long, fairly centrist record, was the only Democrat who could have won. But the 2020 results point more strongly to the movement being the star, not the man.

Biden did win some 2016 Trump voters, but his critical victories in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were powered by turnout, including many who voted for the first time in either 2018 or 2020 because of their wariness about Trump. There is reason to think the Biden campaign didn’t have a great read on what was happening. He was in Ohio the day before the election, while he barely campaigned in Georgia. Biden, of course, narrowly won Georgia while losing by such a large margin in Ohio (eight points) that he probably never had a chance there. Less than a third of Biden voters were White men or White people without a four-year college degree.

Why does this history matter? Because if you think of the Biden presidency as the culmination of an anti-Trumpism, small-d democratic, anti-racism movement, it reshapes your view of what Biden should be doing now. His glee about reaching a deal with a bipartisan group of all-White senators on infrastructure then seems a bit misplaced. So does his downplaying of issues around voting rights. The coalition that put Biden in the White House, of course, embraces child tax credits and infrastructure spending — particularly since Biden and his team have suggested those economic policies will reduce some of the United States’ racial inequality. But this was not a movement to build better roads. It was a movement to stop a racist autocrat, defend democratic values and make sure Black, immigrant, Muslim, transgender and other historically marginalized lives truly matter in this country.

That movement deserves a presidency that prioritizes its goals, and Biden is falling short. It’s not simply that Biden won’t push hard for pro-democracy legislation. It’s that his words and actions often suggest a man who wants to restore the polite, bipartisan, White-dominated Washington establishment that existed when he entered the Senate in 1973.

But the good old days were not that good for people who weren’t White men like Biden — and those days are not coming back. The leader of a movement for multiracial democracy would be showing up in Georgia and Texas to criticize new laws making it harder to vote; condemning the push to ban talking honestly in classrooms about the United States’ racial history; advocating reforms of the increasing anti-democratic, Trumpy federal judiciary; educating Americans about the threat of aggressive gerrymandering; and meeting with pro-democracy activists as much as he does Republican senators.

Biden should certainly do the things that American presidents typically do, but he should acknowledge the reality that makes his presidency unique: He must be the leader of the movement for multiracial democracy, because American democracy is under threat and the solutions to that threat require presidential action.

Joe Biden needed the movement to get to the White House — and it delivered for him. Now, the movement needs Joe Biden to deliver in return.