The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A flailing Biden sold his ‘whole soul’ in political desperation

President Biden speaks in Atlanta on Jan. 11. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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During his venomous speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, President Biden attacked his fellow Americans who oppose blowing up the Senate filibuster to pass his partisan election law by comparing them to racists and traitors, accusing them of standing with George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis. Not only that, he explicitly called them “enemies” of America, thundering, “I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic.”

But here’s the thing: Biden wasn’t just talking about Republicans. The Democrats’ federal election takeover has zero chance of passing not because of GOP opposition, but because, thankfully, it does not have enough support among Democrats to get rid of the filibuster to pass it. It isn’t Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who is killing the bill. He doesn’t have enough votes. It’s Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who will deliver the death blow.

Does this make them racists, traitors and “enemies” of our democracy? According to Biden, apparently it does. But for Biden, here is the bigger question: Does insulting Manchin and Sinema make them any more likely to support his election bill or bring them any closer to a deal to salvage some elements of his Build Back Better agenda?

Of course not. So why would Biden say these things? These weren’t off-the-cuff remarks. They were part of a prepared address. I used to run a White House speechwriting shop. Before words get into a presidential speech for delivery, first they have to go through the “staffing process” — a review by members of the White House senior staff and relevant Cabinet secretaries.

That means only two things are possible regarding Biden’s speech: Either every senior official in the administration signed off on it, which means those words represent what the Democratic establishment believes and considers acceptable. Or someone objected — perhaps pointing out that it would be inappropriate for the president of the United States to compare his opponents to a racist police chief who used police dogs and fire hoses against Black civil rights protesters — and those objections were overruled.

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This was a violation of every principle on which Biden campaigned for the presidency. During his victory speech following his 2020 election, Biden declared that it was “time to put away the harsh rhetoric” and “stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” In his inaugural address, he promised to “end this uncivil war” and put “my whole soul” into “bringing America together.” Calling Americans who disagree with his partisan election bill bigots and enemies is a strange way of doing so.

Biden’s speech was a pitiful outburst by a flailing president. His approval rating in the new Quinnipiac poll has plummeted to 33 percent — down from 49 percent in the same poll seven months ago. Americans see that he promised unity and normality, and is delivering the opposite. They also believe that he’s focused on the wrong things. A new Politico-Morning Consult poll asked voters what should be “the top priority” for Congress: reforming the electoral college; expanding voting access in federal elections; or expanding oversight of states’ changes to voting practices. “None of the above” beat all three of them.

Americans are struggling with real problems: Inflation is at a 40-year high, and we have a massive labor shortage, with more than 10 million unfilled jobs. There aren’t sufficient coronavirus tests and therapeutics. Schools are closing again. Drug overdose deaths reached a record high. But instead of focusing on fixing these problems, Biden has focused on political theater — spending a full week pushing an election law that has no chance of passing, and doing so with offensive and hyperbolic rhetoric.

Mike Pence: Jan. 6 was a power grab. So is busting the filibuster to nationalize elections.

Why would Biden spend so much political capital on a lost cause? The reason is simple: Because the GOP made significant gains with non-White voters in 2020 — particularly among African American men and younger Black voters. Barack Obama won 95 percent of Black male voters in 2008. In 2020, according to Edison Research, Biden’s support among Black men dropped to just 80 percent, while Trump won 18 percent. And pre-election polls found that 21 percent of Black voters ages 18 to 44 supported Trump.

Since Democrats need to win supermajorities of Black voters to prevail, even modest GOP inroads present a potentially mortal threat. If Republicans nominate a candidate who does not repel moderate suburban voters the way Trump did, while building on these gains with non-White voters, it could tip the scales in the next election.

So, Biden is hyping a fake threat of “Jim Crow 2.0” and using racial dog whistles in an attempt to drive these voters away from the GOP. This would be a cynical ploy by any president. But coming from one who promised to put his “whole soul” into uniting the country, it is shameful and pathetic.