Biden confronts a skeptical base as he pushes voting rights in Georgia

As Brown sees it, she helped put Democrats in power, but a year later she and other black voters are worse off when it comes to their choices. There is frustration in her voice as she explains that voting rights still don’t seem to be a priority for the government.

“It makes our job harder,” Brown said. “What am I going to go back and tell people? …. How do I convince them to come back out?”

Brown’s skepticism highlighted the political jungle that Biden entered when he landed in Atlanta on Tuesday to deliver his latest speech on the need to protect democracy, pass electoral reforms and possibly revise Senate rules. After months of inaction, those who have called for his help are increasingly doubting that he can provide it.

A number of groups boycotted Biden’s speech. And the state’s best-known voting rights activist — gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — also did not show up, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict.

Biden’s speech, delivered on a brisk afternoon at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, served not only to shine a spotlight on the onslaught of state Republican electoral laws restricting ballot access, but also to attract the very Democratic base, of the Brown says she’s disillusioned, engaged.

The president, who has served for more than 30 years in a Senate that has become a thorn in his side, continued to resist anti-democratic forces led by his predecessor. A self-proclaimed “institutionalist,” he denounced the chamber he once served as “a shell of his former self” and warned that the “threat to our democracy is so grave” that it justifies “getting rid of the filibuster.” if he would choose legal laws can go no other way.

Appealing to national lawmakers’ historical consciousness, Biden reminded the public that he was “so damn old” that he was still alive and starting college in 1963 when Fannie Lou Hamer was pulled off a bus, jailed and beaten after she registered voters in Mississippi. He asked national and state legislators how they would like to be remembered when they face the same questions as their predecessors, whether it was after Selma’s Bloody Sunday or during Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At times, it seemed like would Biden also ask the question.

“I ask every elected official in America, how would you like to be remembered? Momentous moments in history, they represent a choice,” Biden said. “Do you want to be at the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Would you like to stand alongside John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to stand alongside Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”

Those who showed up to watch Biden speak said they were anxious to hear him and Vice President Kamala Harris make their arguments. In interviews with a dozen participants, including organizers, city council members, students and civil rights activists, two things were reiterated: a desire for Biden to present a plan for passing the two bills before the Senate, and an unabashed, adamant, and vocal endorsement of the amendment or Elimination of the filibuster.

“I wish they did it sooner, but I’m glad they do it now,” said Melanie Campbell, who attended a virtual meeting with White House officials and other civil rights activists last week. Campbell and other leading black women organizers had requested that Harris and Biden come to Georgia.

Some participants argued that Biden was not the hurdle. “We all need to remember that FDR and LBJ had significant majorities in Congress. The Senate is the problem, not the President, and unfortunately, until we change the composition of the Senate, promoting civil rights will be an uphill battle,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of the South Asian national civic organization IMPACT, who attended the speech in Atlanta.

But for others, the skepticism wasn’t too far beneath the surface. Gerald Riggs, a member of the Atlanta NAACP, issued a similar warning as Brown mingled with other local organizers, elected officials and activists waiting for BIden.

“We rallied far too many people to the election with the promise of passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, both of which have not gone ahead,” Riggs said. “So I speak for all the activists that I have mobilized and for the voters that we have mobilized. That’s what they want to hear about. No more excuses.”

The White House has repeatedly defended the sequencing of Biden’s agenda, noting that he entered the Oval Office at an unprecedented time when a global pandemic was raging and Americans were suffering from an economic downturn. Aides also note that attacks on democracy and protections of voting rights are what prompted Biden to launch his campaign, while arguing that Biden has been far from coy about the threats the country faces.

Biden’s speech came two days after the new session of the Georgia state legislature began as Republicans sought to expand legislation passed last year spurred by former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election. This time, some Republicans are pushing for action Ban drop-in boxes for postal voting all in all.

On Tuesday morning in Georgia’s State House, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, outlined his own proposals for federal election legislation — including amending the constitution to require “citizens-only elections” and national voter ID laws — and accused Biden of pushing for a ” Federal election takeover”. Baoky Vu, a Republican who was forced out of his position on the DeKalb County Board of Elections reprimanded by his local party for speaking out against his party’s restrictive electoral laws, he said he supports Raffensperger’s re-election bid. But he also remains concerned about the voting laws passed in Georgia last year.

“This is a gradual, deliberate attempt to subvert the institutions of democracy itself,” Vu said of the dynamics in Georgia and across the country. “That’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on what can be done at the federal level.”

While some Georgia Democrats were glad the president was putting the spotlight on these laws, others were curious as to why Biden wasn’t elsewhere. Among the many local Georgia Democrats who chose not to appear Tuesday was Erick Allen, nominee for lieutenant governor and chairman of the Cobb County delegation to the state house.

“I think it’s appropriate to make this your first stop to honor the legacy of John Lewis’ work, considering this is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act they’re trying to push through,” Allen said. “But I think there are other places that need to hear this message, to put pressure on their senators to get this done. Georgia gave him the Senate majority. So we did as much as possible.”

“If you come to Georgia, you also have to announce that the next time Air Force One’s tires hit the ground, it’ll be in Arizona and then West Virginia,” Allen continued, referring to the home states of the two Senate Democrats most opposed to changing filibuster rules: Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (DW.Va.)

But it wasn’t just Biden’s presence, it was Abrams’ absence that caused a stir at Tuesday’s event. A number of city council members and local Democratic officials lining up for security reasons vocally questioned why Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate was not in attendance.

“It’s all over the news,” said one woman.

Abrams later issued a statement highlighting that she and Biden spoke on the phone that morning and had a conversation that “reaffirmed” their “common commitment to the American project of freedom and democracy.”

For watching activists, the talk of who was or wasn’t present ultimately served as a distraction from the big question: What would come next? NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson hailed Biden for his “powerful words” but said he “didn’t give voting rights protection the same priority as other policy issues like the BBB, infrastructure bill, or Covid relief.” It’s time, he said, for the president to recalibrate focus.

“Using the bully pulpit is something every president uses to spark political initiatives. But he did today. But there is still a lot to do before we actually have an invoice ready for signature on his desk.”

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