Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The conservative-controlled Supreme Court has thrown out Roe v. Wade, rolling back women’s rights a half-century. Senate Republicans are using the filibuster to block voting rights, climate legislation and President Joe Biden’s sweeping plan to strengthen the middle class.
Republican governors like Gregg Abbott of Texas are banning books, while Ron DeSantis of Florida is targeting transgender youth. Meanwhile, many Republicans are still lying about the outcome of the 2020 election – and, in the case of Missouri Republican Senate hopeful Eric Greitens, suggesting the use of violence against their political foes (Greitens claims he was just being metaphorical).
So, with women’s and trans rights under assault, the planet on fire and democracy under assault, some Democrats are furious with… Biden.
Why are they mad at Biden? Biden didn’t overturn Roe. In fact, he named a brilliant justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the Supreme Court, and he has called on the Senate to drop the filibuster to protect women’s right to choose.
Biden isn’t denying climate change. In fact, on his first day in office he rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, and he has convened 40 world leaders in a summit on how best to approach the challenges posed by climate change.
Biden didn’t kill voting rights. In fact, he traveled to Atlanta, the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and former Rep. John Lewis, to chastise Senate Republicans for standing in the way of protecting voting rights, even comparing them to infamous segregationists George Wallace and Bull Connor.
And yet, some in the Democratic Party are complaining about the President and his approach to governance. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tina Smith of Minnesota have called on Biden to declare a national emergency over the rollback of abortion rights and to set up abortion clinics on federal land – despite the legal ban on federal funding for most abortions, and the reality that such a move could put doctors and women at risk of arrest when they depart federal land within a state that has outlawed abortion.
“We need our president at this moment to step up and remind everyone that we Democrats don’t believe the government should be making a decision about whether to continue a pregnancy,” Warren told Politico on June 27 – three days after Biden had already issued a statement decrying the “devastating consequences” of the court’s ruling, calling on Congress to codify Roe and announcing executive action to protect women’s rights to travel to seek abortions and to protect access to medication that induces abortion.
Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri gave voice to the exasperation of many progressives, telling the Washington Post, “They [Democrats] just aren’t fighting. When people see that, what’s going to make them show up to vote? We can’t just tell people, ‘Well, just vote – vote your problems away.’ Because they’re looking at us and saying, ‘Well, we already voted for you.’”
I share the frustration, as I imagine Biden does, too. And, to be fair to his Democratic critics, Biden is far from infallible. In fact, if we were sitting down over a beer, you might even get me to agree with some of his critics. After all, former President Bill Clinton, my old boss and the most open-minded adult I’ve ever known, loved to quote Benjamin Franklin, who said: “Critics are our friends; they show us our faults.” But perhaps Biden could use fewer such friends.
That said, if, as Bush says, we can’t vote our problems entirely away, we sure can’t complain them away either. And the complaints about Biden are having an effect. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Biden’s approval rating at just 25% among voters aged 18 to 34 years old and 33% among voters aged 35 to 49. In the 2020 election, younger voters were Biden’s strongest age cohort; now they are his weakest. And, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, 64% of Democrats now want a different leader to be the standard bearer in 2024.
But the reality is that Biden has, in fact, done a ton of good despite GOP obstructionism. His American Rescue Plan invested more than $13 billion in minority-serving institutions of higher education, more than $10 billion in community colleges, $2.6 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and about $190 million in tribal colleges and universities.
His policies – especially the child tax credit in his rescue package – reduced child poverty, keeping some six million kids from falling into poverty. Young people, and all of us who know and love them, should be singing Biden’s praises for what he has done, not criticizing him for what the Republicans have blocked him from doing.
I am old enough to remember when it was right-wing Republicans who were hellbent on tearing down Democratic presidents like Barack Obama and Clinton; now the progressives are practically doing the GOP’s job for them.
I have a radical proposal for my progressive friends: Stop attacking Biden and start attacking Republicans. If you think Biden is too weak, don’t weaken him further for goodness sakes. Strengthen him, so he can lead the way forward.
Two progressive Democrats from California have the right idea. Rep. Ro Khanna, who was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, told the Washington Post that Biden, “didn’t get [to the White House] by accident. He’s the president of the United States, he’s the leader of our party. He defeated Donald Trump. He’s owed a degree of respect.”
In an email to me, Khanna elaborated: “The Democratic Party has been the greatest vehicle for economic justice, social justice and racial justice in the last 100 years.” Khanna’s message to progressive critics: “Help build the party and make it bolder. Don’t undermine it. It’s our best shot at progress.”
Similarly, instead of attacking Biden, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom ran an ad in Florida attacking Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Newsom blasted the conservative governor, saying “Freedom is under attack” in Florida. “They’re banning books,” Newsom says, “making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors.” As “America the Beautiful” plays in the background, Newsom reclaims patriotism, freedom and the flag. It is masterful – and does not include a word of whining about Biden.
Attacking your political opponents instead of your party’s president? What a novel concept. I hope it catches on.
My message to my progressive friends is this: We’re all in the same boat, so stop poking holes in the boat and then complaining that Biden is getting you wet.