Biden talks tough on abortion, but activists want action

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President Joe Biden wants to fight the midterm elections on preserving widespread legal abortion following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But his base may view it as yet another issue on which Biden has failed to deliver as he pleads helplessness in the face of larger forces around him in Washington.

As Biden announced modest executive actions directing federal agencies to promote abortion access in various ways, he made a November plea. “The fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law codifying Roe, which I will sign immediately upon its passage at my desk,” he said.

The bill congressional Democrats have voted on before, and plan to vote on again, goes beyond codifying Roe and has no path to reaching Biden’s desk this year. It failed 49-51, not garnering a simple majority — much less the 60-vote threshold for overcoming a filibuster.

But if the Democrats gained enough seats to change the filibuster rules without Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and then had 51 votes for national abortion legislation, the midterm elections could make a difference. Under this scenario, Democrats would also need to retain control of the House.

“We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law,” the president said. “Your vote can make that a reality.”

“The challenge is: Go out and vote,” Biden continued. “Well, for God’s sake, there’s an election in November. Vote, vote, vote, vote. Consider the challenge accepted, court.”

“We’ve received a lot of lip service from this administration, and all the gaslighting calls to ‘just vote’ are not enough,” protested an official with the Liberate Abortion Coalition.

For Biden, there is a risk that this reminds liberal voters of a string of Democratic failures under his watch: the party’s inability to advance filibuster reform or abortion rights or to expand the Supreme Court to add more liberal justices after the previous Republican-controlled Senate confirmed all three of former President Donald Trump’s high court nominees — all three of whom voted to overturn Roe.

Democrats had been talking about codifying Roe at the federal level dating back to at least the Freedom of Choice Act in the 1990s. The 1973 landmark abortion decision came within one vote of being overturned in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. At the time of Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation in 1991, when Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, some activists already believed he would be the fifth vote for its reversal.

Three Democratic administrations, governing at least two years with Democrats also in control of Congress, went by with no bill being enacted. A fourth Democratic administration, coupled with congressional majorities, has passed since Roe was handed down.

At the White House daily briefing the day before Biden’s executive orders, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was peppered with questions about what the administration planned to do about abortion access to the point that she could have been forgiven for tapping out and taking anti-abortion queries from EWTN’s Owen Jensen.

“There’s a lot of frustration of why weren’t those orders deliberated and decided and ready to roll out at a faster pace, and here we are, about two weeks later, talking about when that next wave might come out,” a reporter said, noting that “you had this unprecedented situation of more than a month of knowing pretty much what was going to be, likely, in the ruling.”

“The president is not done speaking on how he is going to fight for women’s freedoms and women’s rights,” Jean-Pierre vowed. “I can assure you — you will hear more from him.” She added that “what we saw a couple of weeks ago” from the Supreme Court “is not the end. It is only the beginning.”

Criticism from abortion rights supporters has made it difficult for Biden to speak out against the protests at Supreme Court justices’ homes.

“Leadership right now is coming from the streets, and we would love to be met in that effort by the White House and the Democrats more broadly,” Rachel Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March, complained to the Washington Post. “I think that Biden has an opportunity to step forward in a leadership role in a way that he has not.”

It’s possible that Biden’s abortion backlash won’t hurt Democrats in November. Democrats are outperforming Biden’s approval rating in the generic congressional ballot and battleground state Senate races. Demographics that tend to be supportive of legal abortion have emerged as strong Biden disapprovers. A New York Times/Siena College poll, for example, found that 94% of younger Democrats want a different nominee in 2024.

“I know it’s frustrating, and it made a lot of people very angry,” Biden acknowledged.