U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday about the grave threat to the U.S. system of democracy from what Biden called voter suppression and election subversion. This is a moment, and an issue, he said, by which leaders will be judged by history.
“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. (Martin Luther) King or George Wallace?” he asked. “Do you want to be the side of Abraham Lincoln or (Confederacy president) Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
It was strident, stirring, persuasive, passionate.
But if you’re the kind of person who likes to skip ahead to the likely result of any development, then a much terser but no less strident speaker delivered the verdict you were looking for at the Capitol building in Washington earlier in the day. There, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told reporters he wouldn’t side with Biden to overcome Republican efforts to block any legislation on voting rights.
“We need some good rule changes to make the place work better, but getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” Manchin said hours before Biden spoke.
Which, unless he changes his mind, kind of kills any attempt to turn Biden’s soaring rhetoric into action before it even begins.
Biden was aware of the problem – it’s one he’s become well familiar with in the year he’s been president. “We have a 50-50 Senate,” he said, referring to the partisan composition of that chamber. “That means we have 51 presidents.” That is, any one senator can be the deciding vote. Recently that means Manchin exercises veto power, as he did late last year in killing – at least for now – the massive bill that forms the core Biden’s economic agenda. As he now threatens to do with these democratic reforms.
The immediate issue is two bills that have been passed by the House of Representatives but are blocked in the Senate by a Republican filibuster, which would require a three-fifths majority of senators to overcome. The filibuster rule itself could be changed or eliminated by a simple majority vote – which means Democrats could do it with no support from Republicans. But that rule change is something Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have long opposed. Biden has been opposed, too. Until now.
“I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” Biden said. If the legislation is blocked by a filibuster, he went on, “we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
The grave situation he outlined was a result of two developments, according to his accounting: The U.S. Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to allow states to change election laws to suppress voting; and the big lie Donald Trump has told about the 2020 election being rife with fraud, which has convinced many Republicans that rules need to be changed to make voting harder and make overturning election results they don’t like easier. The combination of the two has led legislatures in at least 19 Republican-controlled states to pass laws restricting the franchise, making it easier for partisans to take over key election supervision roles, gerrymandering entrenched party majorities in redistricting processes, and even attempting to allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters (as Trump demanded they do in 2020).
The two bills before the Senate, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would restore some of the protections of the earlier voting rights law, curb gerrymandering, and change election financing rules. Another bill being discussed by Democrats (including possibly Manchin) might amend the Electoral College Act to address some of the specific strategies Trump employed in trying to overturn the 2020 results.
“They failed,” Biden said of Trump and his supporters’ attempt to stop him from taking office. “But democracy’s victory is not certain, nor is democracy’s future.”
This was a continuation of the message he delivered last week, on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The pair of speeches may be his two strongest as president. He delivered this one in Atlanta, after laying a wreath in honour of Dr. Martin Luther King. The location has symbolic resonance on the issue of voting rights, as the home of King and Lewis, in a state that was a cradle of the civil rights movement and has been a voting rights battleground continuously for more than half a century.
But a bunch of prominent Georgia voting rights advocates pointedly refused to attend the speech, explaining on CNN broadcasts through the day that they want fewer stirring words in front of symbolic backdrops and more action. They suggested the people who need to hear Biden’s speech most are in Washington: Manchin and Sinema and their colleagues, who have the power to put the words into action.
Biden said he’s been having those “quiet conversations” in D.C. for most of a year. “I’m tired of being quiet,” he shouted.
“Every senator, Democratic, Republican and independent, will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment but for the ages. Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no?” he asked.
“Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no?”
Their answers, he said, would be studied by future generations. “Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote, and where they stood after the vote. There’s no escape. So let’s get back to work.”
Edward Keenan is a National Affairs writer.