“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.