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President Joe Biden speaks at a press conference

President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference on June 14, 2021. (Photo: Francisco Seco/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

'His Silence Is Breathtaking': Biden Under Fire for Going Quiet on Voting Rights

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said the president has "been AWOL on voting rights and ending the filibuster, which are critical to everything else America must achieve."

Jake Johnson

With Senate Republicans expected to successfully filibuster the For the People Act on Tuesday, progressive activists, lawmakers, and some prominent figures within the Democratic mainstream are criticizing President Joe Biden for failing to use his bully pulpit to publicly fight for the popular bill as the GOP assault on ballot access intensifies nationwide.

"Our democracy is in crisis and we need the president to act like it."
—Rep. Mondaire Jones

"The For the People Act will be voted on today. Where's Biden?" asked Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who served as Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration.

"Why isn't he making the case to the American people? Why isn't he strong-arming Manchin? Why isn't he on the Hill buttonholing senators? The most important voting rights bill in 56 years. His silence is breathtaking," Reich continued. "I like Biden but he's been AWOL on voting rights and ending the filibuster, which are critical to everything else America must achieve."

In late March, the president condemned Republican-led voter suppression efforts in Georgia and dozens of other states as "pernicious" and promised to "do everything in [his] power" to protect the franchise.

But while the White House insists that protecting voting rights remains at the top of Biden's agenda, progressives say the president has been missing in action as GOP attacks on voting rights continue to advance in state legislatures across the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republicans have introduced at least 389 voter suppression bills in 48 states since the beginning of the year, and 22 have become law.

"Is saving democracy a priority for this administration or not?" Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, wrote in a series of tweets on Monday. "Right-wing zealots are systematically dismantling our democratic institutions. I don't want to see some tepid public statement."

Pointing to the aggressive public messaging that past presidents used to advance their legislative priorities, Levin wrote: "I hope Joe Biden cares about saving our democracy as much as Bill Clinton cared about NAFTA. As much Barack Obama cared about the Affordable Care Act. As much as every Republican president cares about tax cuts for their donors."

"Democracy is under threat," Levin added. "Fascism is rising. Time is running out. It's time for the president to get off the sidelines and into the game, or we're all going to lose."

Asked during a Monday briefing to specify what Biden has done in recent weeks to bolster the Senate's chances of passing a voting rights bill to counter GOP-led suppression attempts, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the president has "had conversations, obviously, with members about supporting this legislation, including Senator [Joe] Manchin," the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus who has refused to co-sponsor the For the People Act.

"As it relates to the filibuster: You know, I don’t think you have to take it from us," Psaki added. "That would be Congress moving forward or making a decision. If the vote is unsuccessful tomorrow, it will... we suspect it will prompt a new conversation about the path forward, and we'll see where that goes."

Psaki's remarks came as more than 480 Democratic state legislators from all 50 states signed on to a letter (pdf) pleading for federal action to shield voting rights, warning: "We are out of options. We need your help."

"The world is watching," reads the letter, which was addressed to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. "American democracy is in the balance. When future generations judge whether we rose to this pivotal moment in history, we hope you will be counted alongside us in the fight to preserve this experiment in self-governance."

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday evening on a motion to proceed to debate on the For the People Act, which would establish federal standards for absentee voting, institute a national automatic voter registration system, strengthen donor disclosure requirements, and bar states from purging voter rolls.

"Is saving democracy a priority for this administration or not?"
—Ezra Levin, Indivisible

Under current Senate rules, procedural motions are subject to the 60-vote legislative filibuster, meaning Democrats will need the support of at least 10 Republicans to advance the voting rights bill. Thus far, not one Republican has backed the For the People Act or a watered-down alternative that Manchin put forth last week.

As activists anticipate the outcome of Tuesday's vote and gear up for nationwide demonstrations, it remains unclear how Biden intends to respond to the GOP's likely filibuster of the For the People Act. Biden doesn't have any voting rights-related public events or speeches scheduled ahead of or immediately after Tuesday's vote, and the president has largely been quiet about the filibuster since he endorsed reforming the rule in mid-March.

"We need President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris talking about the threats to our democracy every single day until we pass the For the People Act to protect voting rights and get money out of politics. Period," Indivisible tweeted Monday.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) echoed that message, writing, "Our democracy is in crisis and we need the president to act like it."


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