It took a year for Joe Biden to make an irrevocable bet that puts the credibility of his presidency on the line. If his bid now to change Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation fails, he’ll lose more than just the bills he sees as vital to saving democracy. His drained political capital could spell the end of the entire domestic, legislative phase of his administration.
Biden’s speech on the issue Tuesday, delivered amid the symbolism of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, was remarkable for its boldness. The President who ran as a unifier put forward a blunt good versus evil argument, suggesting that opponents to his plan are akin to segregationists.
“The right to vote and have that vote count, it is democracy’s threshold liberty. Without it, nothing is possible. But with it, anything is possible,” Biden said in one of the most important moments of his presidency.
Democrats cannot pass two stalled voting rights bills on their own owing to the opposition of Senate Republicans who won’t even allow them to come up for debate. To evade their obstruction, Biden must find a way to persuade all 50 Democratic senators to at least amend the filibuster – a device that means major legislation effectively needs 60 votes to pass.
His decision to go all in on Tuesday underscores Biden’s belief that 12 months after the Capitol insurrection, America is at a historic moment at which its near 250-year experiment with democracy could end. More prosaically, it significantly raises political expectations for Biden himself. By making bills that are far from certain to pass the cornerstone of his term, Biden is at risk of looking like he’s failed if his effort falls short. And prospects do appear dim that Biden can 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 set up an immediate test of political clout for a White House that has made a habit of establishing legislative deadlines and missing them – partly due to political malpractice as well as the difficulty of working with marginal Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. The first hurdle looms as early as Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledging to introduce proposals for rules changes to help usher the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act into law.
A make-or-break moment
While Biden has spent months in tortuous negotiations in support of his sweeping domestic agenda, he’s never truly staked out the kind of make-or-break moment that he engineered in Atlanta on Tuesday.
History suggests that towering presidential achievements often need a commander in chief to commit massive amounts of prestige to the effort. It’s possible the President could move the needle, and create the conditions for success that would significantly booster his reputation and record.
But if Biden cannot persuade Manchin and Sinema to drop their opposition to amending Senate rules with a simple majority, he’ll come across as a leader who cannot even control his own party. His failure would also bode ill for his chances of getting the same pair on board to finally pass his Build Back Better social spending and climate plan, which would cement his reputation as a bold reformer. And the political atmospherics would be ruinous, as Biden would be portrayed as a weak leader, who failed to implement his own agenda and who warned democracy could be eclipsed but could do nothing about it. The narrative of a struggling presidency would grow and might do serious damage to Democratic enthusiasm in what is already shaping up as a tough midterm election year.
In some ways, the voting rights push and the Build Back Better plan represent the last big legislative chance for a President who already has a bipartisan infrastructure law and $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue package on his record, which is still shadowed by his failure to pass his most ambitious goals.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is pledging to make the chamber all but ungovernable if the rules change gambit succeeds. Even if it doesn’t, conditions are difficult enough. Midterm elections looming in November are already curtailing limited time for meaningful legislative progress. Come November, Republicans may win the House and their leader, Kevin McCarthy, is signaling he would use his possible speakership as a weapon of revenge for ex-President Donald Trump. The GOP could capture the Senate too, leaving Biden isolated for the last two years of his term.
A changed President
Tuesday’s speech also marked an evolution in Biden as president as well. It built upon his soaring speech on the first anniversary of the Capitol insurrection last week in what is now looking like a political reset after a tough six months.
Even as vice president and in the early months of his presidency, Biden often still came across as a creature of his beloved Senate. Now, his willingness to embrace filibuster changes that he always opposed marks a large step away from the chamber he loves and his idealized vision of its comity and customs.
The speech in Atlanta was notable for the same kind of stark, blunt language that Biden used in calling out the authoritarian impulses of Trump in Statuary Hall on the anniversary of January 6 last week. Biden appears to have traveled some distance from being the unifying force that he epitomized during his inaugural address last year and that helped yield the bipartisan infrastructure law. Perhaps his most significant gamble in Tuesday’s speech was the clarity of the language he used to call out anyone who opposes his plan.
“I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered?” Biden asked, arguing that consequential moments in history present a choice.
“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden asked. “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 moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
It seems unlikely that Manchin, who has already shown a prickly side and a sensitivity to slights during the long tussle over the Build Back Better plan, will shift his position based on being implicitly compared to segregationists. The West Virginia senator made clear before Biden spoke that his position – that rules changes should not be adopted in the Senate by a simple majority – had not changed.
“You change the rules with two thirds of the people that are present, so it’s Democrats, Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better; getting rid of the filibuster does not make it work better,” Manchin told reporters.
Time is running out
Unless Schumer and Biden can craft some kind of compromise solution that would allow Manchin to say he stuck to his guns – or the weight of effectively sinking one of the bills that he himself drafted begins to press on the West Virginian – his stance, as laid 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 meant just to persuade but was also a hedge to protect his standing in the event of failure.
While the President took a gamble with the strength of his appeal, the political consequences of doing nothing would have been deeply damaging. That’s because many Democrats and independent election analysts believe the party’s chances in future elections are in peril because of attempts in GOP-run states, inspired by Trump, to make it harder to vote and easier to influence the results of elections.
Many liberals still worry Biden came to the fight too late and should have acted immediately on voting rights as soon as he entered the White House at the apex of his political power. A coalition of Georgia voting rights groups made clear their displeasure on Tuesday, declining to show up to Biden’s speech, saying they were through with “photo-ops.”
Instead of acting a year ago on voting rights, Biden spent months reluctant to fracture what limited cooperation existed in the Senate in order to pass the infrastructure bill, as a foundation for his calls for national unity. (The President’s critics, however, do not explain how tackling voting rights first would have unpicked the Manchin and Sinema conundrum or eased the impossibility of life in a 50-50 Senate.) But for the sake of his own credibility after a period when his approval ratings tumbled, as the pandemic dragged on and inflation rose, the President had a political imperative to show fight and boldness at this moment.
And he was also under pressure to demonstrate steel to Black voters, many of whom appear likely to suffer most from GOP-led voter suppression in the states. Black Democrats rescued Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 when it was on the verge of fizzling out. Black voters will be critical to Democratic hopes in November – especially in Georgia, where there is a Senate race that could decide the destiny of the chamber, and a high-profile gubernatorial race. The sight of a President up for the fight could also be crucial in the broader Democratic coalition as the party needs its core voters to show up in vast numbers to limit Republican gains in November. Biden’s reelection prospects in 2024 also rely on a sense that his presidency is energetic and battle ready.
In short, Biden didn’t have much choice but to act as his did. The perilous resonance of the moment for Democrats, with voting rights bills 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 have this opportunity again,” she said.