The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden returns to Georgia to honor MLK and tout ‘the time to choose’

The state is crucial for Democrats ahead of the 2024 election

President Biden on Jan. 15 delivered a sermon on civil rights at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Video: The Washington Post)
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ATLANTA — President Biden returned to Georgia on Sunday and used a speech commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to reiterate some of the themes of his 2020 campaign in a possible preview of 2024, marking his first visit to the state in more than a year.

Although the visit was not a political event and was aimed at commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, it marked an important moment for Biden, who steered clear of Georgia during the midterm elections and the bitterly fought December runoff election that ultimately propelled Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) to a full six-year term in the Senate.

The speech came amid the political fallout from the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s think tank in D.C. and at his personal residence in Wilmington, Del. On Saturday, Biden’s lawyer said five additional pages with classified markings were discovered at the president’s Wilmington home.

In December, Georgia got further attention when Biden proposed moving up the Southern swing state in the 2024 Democratic presidential primary calendar to make it one of a handful of early nominating contests before Super Tuesday on March 7. The state was key to Biden’s 2020 victory, where strong voter turnout — particularly among Black voters — helped him win the traditionally Republican state by less than 12,000 votes.

But Georgia officials have cast doubt on Biden’s plan, leaving it unclear whether it will come to pass.

While Biden spoke generously of King’s legacy, calling the civil rights leader one of his two heroes, the president also returned to some of the themes of his 2020 campaign and talked about the enormous work the country still has in protecting democracy, voting rights and economic justice in a potential preview of the issues that could drive a 2024 presidential run.

Biden returned to a common refrain — that there is a battle to “redeem the soul of America” — while warning of an existential battle between democracy and autocracy.

“At this inflection point, we know there’s a lot of work for us to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights and protecting our democracy,” Biden said. “This is the time to choose and direct choices we have. Are we a people who will choose democracy over autocracy?”

Biden delivered the address as a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the country’s most famous Black church, where King once preached. He spoke at the invitation of Warnock, who has led the church for more than 15 years.

Biden’s speech also marked the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, which commemorates the civil rights leader who spurred the passage of two landmark bills: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Biden is also scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the National Action Network’s annual MLK breakfast on Monday.

The president last visited Georgia just over a year ago to deliver a major address on voting rights. In that speech, Biden said the Senate should change its rules by “whichever way they need to be changed” to pass a voting rights law through filibuster carveout that would allow Democrats to pass the legislation with 50 votes instead of 60, which would have required Republican support.

That speech — in which Biden linked congressional Republicans with Jim Crow-era laws limiting the right to vote — invited ire from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called the president’s address a “rant” that “was incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office.”

Congress failed to act on that legislation, in large part because of opposition from Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) in eliminating the filibuster. (Sinema was a Democrat who has since said she is changing her party affiliation to independent.)

The lack of action on voting rights after repeated promises to act has frustrated civil rights leaders and Black voters in Georgia, where Republican lawmakers passed a state law that voting rights advocates and faith leaders warned will dramatically suppress minority turnout. Now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, national action on voting rights is even less likely.

Georgia has proven to be an exceptionally important state for Biden. Not only did it help propel him to the presidency — and is likely to play a key role in doing so if he runs as expected in 2024 — but the election of two Democratic senators there also has allowed him to maintain a majority in the Senate through his entire first term.

Both Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff were elected there in 2020 and Warnock’s victory this fall against Republican Herschel Walker gave Democrats 51 seats in the 100-member Senate. While still a narrow majority, the extra seat gives Democrats some breathing room on legislative proposals and presidential confirmations.

Warnock also spoke Sunday, touting many of Democrats’ biggest accomplishments, including the $700 billion health, tax and climate law known as the Inflation Reduction Act; the bipartisan infrastructure bill; and a provision within the Inflation Reduction Act that caps the cost of insulin at $35 per month for seniors.

“That, my friends, is God’s work, and Georgia had a little something to do with it,” Warnock said.

Biden, meanwhile, also touted some of his administration’s other accomplishments — most notably, the appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female Supreme Court justice.

The president quoted Jackson: “It took just one generation from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Biden said.