Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 8 January 2024


Biden must elevate these Democratic leaders if he wants to win

President Biden prepares to deliver remarks as Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), left, and Bishop Samuel L. Green Sr. greet the crowd at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on Monday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Clyburn said his worry is that the Biden campaign has “not been able to break through that MAGA wall” to communicate what the administration has been able to achieve. He cited judicial appointments and the fact that Biden has named more Black women to federal courts of appeals than all previous presidents combined. He mentioned the fact that Biden has canceled $127 billion in student loan debt for 3.6 million borrowers, though his plan to forgive many more such loans was invalidated by the Supreme Court.

But in addition to better explaining what the administration has already accomplished, the campaign should be telling voters what initiatives Biden would launch in a second term. It never hurts to invite voters to imagine a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. Tell us what that future looks like.

Here’s one way to do that: The campaign can make better use of the Democratic Party’s most effective messengers. Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison skillfully led the party through the midterm election, reducing a predicted red wave into a pinkish ripple. Stacey Abrams’s brains and energy in registering new voters helped make Democrats competitive in Georgia — one result being the election of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, whom the party should be touting as a rising star. Biden’s team should turn to the likes of former Obama administration official Julián Castro to try to keep Latino voters in the Democratic fold, too.

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For Biden to win pivotal states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan, he needs to rack up huge numbers in diverse and heavily Black precincts in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Detroit. There’s no question that he will win those cities, but he needs to win them big. And in all of the swing states, he needs to repeat his strong 2020 showing in the MAGA-unfriendly suburbs.

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Biden must elevate these Democratic leaders if he wants to win

It’s not as if the campaign has ignored African Americans, young people, suburban women or other components of the Democratic coalition. Biden was on Clyburn’s turf Monday, speaking in Charleston at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, site of the 2015 massacre in which a white supremacist shot and killed nine Black worshipers, including the pastor. Biden referred to former president Donald Trump’s denial of the 2020 election outcome as “a second Lost Cause,” calling Trump “a loser.” When protesters interrupted his speech with calls for a halt to Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the audience drowned them out with a chant of “four more years!”

Vice President Harris was in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Saturday, speaking to an AME Women’s Missionary Society retreat. Harris’s ability to connect with African American voters is underreported and underappreciated. But if Clyburn says the message isn’t getting through, the Biden-Harris team would be wise to pay attention.

Biden’s first big speech of his reelection effort last week in Pennsylvania, near historic Valley Forge, defined the coming contest (likely against Trump) as a battle to save American democracy. According to The Post’s account, in his 30-minute remarks, Biden mentioned Trump’s name at least 44 times. MAGA true believers “have abandoned the truth and abandoned democracy,” Biden said. “Now the rest of us — Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans — we have to make our choice.”

That’s enough for me. I fully understand the danger of letting Trump anywhere near the White House again. And I get the strategy: The more successful the Biden campaign is in making the election about Trump, the more likely Biden is to win.

But is “I am not Trump” enough of a message to drive non-MAGA voters to the polls in sufficient numbers for Biden to win? I don’t underestimate fear and loathing as powerful motivational tools; and I’m not freaked out by polls showing a very close election, because that’s the only kind of election we have these days. But I do worry about polling that indicates key Democratic constituencies, such as young people and African Americans, are unenthusiastic about voting in November.

Clyburn, whose support in 2020 breathed life into Biden’s then-moribund campaign, also told CNN that he is “very concerned” about Biden’s standing with Black voters. The problem is not that African Americans would abandon Biden for Trump — there is essentially zero chance of that — but that they might simply stay home.

Trump can’t beat Biden, but apathy just might. And the stakes are far too high to let that happen.

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