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Monday, January 16, 2023

A Year After a Fiery Voting Rights Speech, Biden Delivers a More Muted Address

A Year After a Fiery Voting Rights Speech, Biden Delivers a More Muted Address

“On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the president assured an audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church that its side in the struggle would, indeed, overcome someday.

President Biden speaking from a pulpit.
“Progress is never easy,” President Biden said at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday.Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

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ATLANTA — When he came to the capital of the South to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last year, President Biden delivered a call to nonviolent arms for voting rights, equating opponents to segregationists and vowing to rewrite Senate rules to defeat them. “I will not yield,” he declared. “I will not flinch.”

A year later, Mr. Biden returned to Atlanta on Sunday with little to show for it. He may not have flinched, but he did not succeed, either. None of the sweeping voting rights measures he championed passed the Democratic-controlled Congress last year, and the prospects of any passing a newly elected Republican-controlled House seem vanishingly small.

And so a leader who arguably owes his presidency to the critical and timely support of Black voters in 2020 was left to offer only vague exhortations of hope and no concrete policy plans or legislative strategies. He assured an audience at Dr. King’s fabled Ebenezer Baptist Church that its side in the struggle would, indeed, overcome someday. 

“At this inflection point, we know there’s a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights and protecting our democracy, and I’m remembering that our job is to redeem the soul of America,” Mr. Biden told the appreciative crowd, which included Dr. King’s sister, Christine King Farris, and one of his allies, Andrew Young.

“Look, I get accused of being an inveterate optimist,” the president added. “Progress is never easy. But redeeming the soul of the country is absolutely essential.”

Speaking from a church pulpit, Mr. Biden eschewed the open partisanship of his speech last year, when he spoke at a university and compared Republicans to George Wallace, the Alabama governor who stood in a doorway rather than let Black students enter a white university; Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who used police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters; and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy that went to war to defend slavery.

The analogy went over poorly at the time with Republicans, who insisted that the limits they had imposed in many states were intended to secure election integrity and argued that they opposed Democratic-sponsored legislation because it was federal overreach. Even some Democrats fretted that the president “went a little too far in his rhetoric,” as one senator put it last year. Mr. Biden defended the comparison then but opted against repeating it or anything like it on Sunday.

Nor did he mention eliminating the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, the centerpiece of last year’s speech — and an idea that was defeated barely a week later, when two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, joined Republicans in refusing to go along.

As a result, the legislation, pulling together separate initiatives, went nowhere. The measure was intended to establish nationwide standards for ballot accessto nullify new Republican state-level restrictions; establish new automatic voter registration programs; make Election Day a national holiday; and restore elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act stripped away by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Despite Mr. Biden’s failure to fulfill his promise of a year ago, some civil rights leaders did not fault him. “Obviously, in the last year we were not successful,” Marc H. Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said in an interview. “I sort of chafe at the idea that we were not successful because Joe Biden didn’t do something or the other. We were blocked.”

Still, even if policy success remains elusive, Mr. Morial said he hoped Mr. Biden would use his bully pulpit to make the case more often than just on Dr. King’s holiday. “I’d like to see the president consistently speak about democracy and voting rights throughout the second half of his first term, not just episodically, because it is one of these fundamental values,” he said.

Aides said that there was little Mr. Biden could do at this stage without a change on Capitol Hill. “The president has done and will continue to do all that he can do in his executive powers, but there’s only so much that he can do,” said Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta who now serves as a senior adviser to Mr. Biden and accompanied him on Sunday. “We need Congress to act.”

Some of the steam may have seeped out of the battle over voting rights after the midterm elections in November. While Democrats feared that the G.O.P. would rack up victories in part because of voter suppression, Republicans fell short of expectations. They lost a seat in the Senate and picked up far fewer House seats than expected, although enough to eke out a narrow majority.

Mr. Biden shaking hands with Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia.
Mr. Biden joined Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia and more than 1,000 parishioners to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been his 94th birthday.Oliver Contreras for The New York Times

Among the winners in the midterms was Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia and the senior pastor at Ebenezer. Mr. Warnock held onto his seat after a runoff election last month, despite new state voting restrictions that Democrats and civil rights leaders widely condemned. He played host at the church on Sunday to Mr. Biden, who congratulated him on his victory.

Republicans said Mr. Warnock’s win demonstrated that the Democratic criticism was overblown. “Georgia’s election system has been challenged and scrutinized and criticized, and passed every test,” Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, said in a statement after the runoff, citing high turnout.

Mr. Warnock, however, said in his victory speech that night that he won despite voter suppression. Stories of Georgia voters waiting for hours in long lines that wrapped around buildings, he said, were “most certainly not a sign voter suppression does not exist.”

Early figures indicated that nationally the Black share of the electorate in the midterm elections fell to its lowest level since 2006, particularly in states like Georgia. Many factors could explain why Black voter participation returned to levels common before the era of President Barack Obama, analysts said. And an examination of the numbers suggested that the lower Black turnout might not have changed the outcome of any major race.

But the shift in selected states was striking. In Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina, the average Black turnout rate was 26 percent lower than among white voters, according to state records, compared with 13 percent lower in the 2018 midterm elections. Georgia and Louisiana both passed new restrictions before the 2022 elections, while North Carolina did not.

Nowhere has the issue been more pronounced than in Georgia, where Dr. King led the struggle for civil rights. Ebenezer is holy ground for the civil rights movement, with the old church long since growing into an expansive set of buildings and memorials, including the crypt containing Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

In the sanctuary opposite the previous church, Mr. Biden joined Mr. Warnock and more than 1,000 parishioners to invoke Dr. King’s spirit on what would have been his 94th birthday. While Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Mr. Obama all spoke at Ebenezer, Mr. Biden was the first sitting president to offer a Sunday sermon.

He said that Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy were his heroes as a young man and, as he has in the past, Mr. Biden left the impression that he was perhaps more involved in the civil rights movement than other people’s recollections indicate. He referred to himself as “a 22-year-old kid in the east side in the civil rights movement,” although he did not claim to have been arrested, as he did last year. (The Republican National Committee nonetheless issued a statement saying, “Joe Biden once again lied about his life story.”)

In his sermon, the president extolled Dr. King as a “nonviolent warrior for justice” who remains an inspiration for today’s generation nearly 60 years after his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech.

“It’s still the task of our time to make that dream a reality, because it’s not there yet,” Mr. Biden said. “To make Dr. King’s vision tangible, to match the words of the preachers and the poets with our deeds. As the Bible teaches us, we must be doers of the word.”

The president, who plans to address the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington on Monday, recalled that Dr. King anticipated a constant struggle. “He said, ‘Where do we go from here?’ That’s a quote. ‘Where do we go from here?’” Mr. Biden said. “Well, my message to the nation on this day is: We go forward. We go together.”

He pointed to the Catholic rosary on his wrist that he said his son Beau wore the night he died of brain cancer in 2015. “There’s always hope,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to believe.”

A Year After a Fiery Voting Rights Speech, Biden Delivers a More Muted

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