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Monday, August 15, 2022

Opinion | When Will Biden Join the Fight for Voting Rights?

The task at hand for Mr. Biden is difficult, but not unattainable: Voting rights legislation is not only desperately needed, but also broadly popular — including in the home states of the reluctant senators.

And yet it is impossible to look at the effort Mr. Biden has devoted to voting rights until now and conclude that he is pulling out all the stops. His heart does not seem to be in this fight. Instead of pressing for the reforms necessary to pass these bills with 50 votes, he has defended the filibuster, while his administration has been challenging civil rights leaders to “out-organize” the Republicans who have implemented systematic, state-sanctioned voter suppression. Many find his stance naïve. “‘Just count the jellybeans’ is a helluva strategy,” political analyst Bakari Sellers tweeted in frustration.

The effort Mr. Biden poured into infrastructure shows what genuine commitment from the White House looks like. While the president has given one major speech dedicated to voting rights, he has held numerous speeches and events on infrastructure, sending the signal that the issue is a top priority. His cabinet and staff practically camped out on Capitol Hill. By late July, according to Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein, his staff had held at least 998 meetings and calls on infrastructure; the office of legislative affairs had held 330 meetings and calls with members of Congress and their top aides in the previous month alone.

Mr. Biden has invited comparisons to President Lyndon Johnson, but Mr. Johnson paired accomplishments like Medicare with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Then, as now, the task was deemed so daunting that some cautioned against investing too much of the president’s political capital in the effort. By the time of his assassination, President John F. Kennedy had let segregationists take civil rights hostage to his top domestic priority: a tax cut.

But when Mr. Johnson’s advisers counseled him to give up on civil rights, too, he shot back, “What the hell is the presidency for?” He personally intervened to get the civil rights bill to the floor, then forced his former mentor, fellow Democrat and self-avowed white supremacist, Senator Richard Russell, to lead a filibuster for roughly three months, betting that he could crack an obstructionist front that had remained solid since Reconstruction ended in 1877. Mr. Johnson had to deal with more than a few reluctant senators — most of those filibustering the civil rights bill were Democrats. To beat them, Mr. Johnson did not use magic powers. He simply spent months working every angle, relentlessly.

If Mr. Biden fails where Mr. Johnson succeeded, he will have left intact the system of legislative segregation that preserved Jim Crow. Whatever else he accomplishes, that will remain part of his legacy.

The president may try everything and fail. But the stakes are so high, he has to try.

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