As his presidency nears his first birthday, Joe Biden has adopted a new top priority: first, reforming America’s democracy first. In increasingly harsh terms, the president accuses the Republican opposition of an authoritarian course. According to Biden, the United States is currently at a crossroads: “Do we prefer democracy to autocracy? He asked Tuesday in Atlanta.
It was the second appearance in a week in which the president – for his own good – lashed out at Republicans and his predecessor Donald Trump. He did so last Thursday during the commemoration of the storming of the Capitol, on January 6.
Read also : American suffrage is now under attack
In a solemn ceremony, which nearly all Republicans abstained from, Biden said the United States “is not a country of kings, dictators or autocrats.” On Tuesday, he lamented that “no Republican has had the courage to stand up to a defeated president and protect American suffrage. Not one”.
And Biden isn’t just blaming Republicans for sticking with the ex-president after the Trump-provoked storm. He also denounces that since their defeat in November 2020 they have adjusted electoral procedures and constituencies so that they can now “override the will of the majority”. For example, by giving Republican officials and administrators the legal power to overrule an election result and designate a winner.
We are not a country of kings or dictators or autocrats
Biden Thursday at the commemoration of the Capitol riots
To applause from his audience – activists and students at a local black university – Biden pledged on Tuesday that he would not back down. “I will not back down,” he said. “I will protect the franchise and our democracy from all enemies, both foreign and, yes, national.”
Electoral reform is the last straw
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For the remaining three years of his tenure, it will be crucial that he can deliver on this promise. Its ambitious socio-economic agenda has stalled in the Senate’s 50-50 split in recent months, and Biden’s party is also at risk of losing its narrow majority in the House in the November midterm elections. This leaves suffrage reform as its last chance to leave a lasting legacy. Either way, it will be difficult to keep an economic promise if he doesn’t first make sure Democrats can still win at the ballot box.
Two bills are ready to protect the electoral process against partisan political manipulation. Both have already been passed in the House of Representatives. However, they face strong Republican resistance in the Senate, which does not allow the proposals to be debated.
I will protect our democracy from foreign and, yes, national enemies
Biden Tuesday in Atlanta
In another attempt to break through that blockade, Biden chose Atlanta as his backdrop on Tuesday. The now highly multicultural metropolis has long been considered the capital of the racist South, where the Ku Klux Klan was headquartered. In the second half of the last century, the city became a stronghold of the black civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King and John Lewis as prominent icons. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visited the tomb of the king and his widow Coretta before the speech, and one of the reform proposals is named after Lewis.
Biden said “the next few days” will be crucial for the future of the United States. His party colleague Chuck Schumer, Leader of the Senate Democrats, wants to consider the proposals before Monday, when the United States commemorates Reverend King’s birthday. If Republicans continue to block this, Schumer threatens, Democrats will fiddle with the obstruction. Republicans still use this archaic weapon of obstruction (threatening endless debate) to prevent many Democratic bills from reaching the Senate.
Democrats divided among themselves
After its abolition, henceforth not 60 but 50 senators will be able to debate a proposal. Since state-level Republicans also use their majority (half plus one) to unilaterally change electoral rules, they can now suffice in the Senate as well, Biden said in Atlanta.
The problem for Democrats is that they don’t have a strong majority for abolition. For some conservative Democrats, this “nuclear option” goes too far. The major drawback of abolishing systematic obstruction is that – if the party in power becomes a minority again – it will no longer have this weapon.
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Progressive Democrats, for their part, warn their party must not be naive and must now play the game as tough and dirty as the other side. Among many left-wing activists, Biden was not welcome in Atlanta. They complain that in his first year he invested too little in voting rights. Relatives of Reverend King, among others, have been criticized for wanting to meet with the president anyway. Local black suffrage champion and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams appeared to be avoiding the president under the guise of agenda issues.
If Democrats remain divided, filibuster reform can also be considered, instead of removing it. For example, by abolishing it only in matters of electoral legislation or by making its invocation more difficult. Another option is to relaunch a compromise on electoral reform between moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Time is running out for Democrats. As Biden spoke on Tuesday, a North Carolina court looked at a constituency map redrawn by Republicans. In the southern state, where Trump garnered just under half of the vote at the end of 2020, thanks to the card, Republicans could win up to more than three-quarters of the seats in November. The judge lifted the card.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on January 13, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 13, 2022