Joe Biden’s ambitious civil rights agenda might face insurmountable hurdles in the Senate. But he isn’t waiting on members of Congress to try and build a legacy.
Three months into his presidency, Biden is adopting a more aggressive strategy, using blunt rhetoric, executive actions and federal agencies to advance a civil rights agenda around the margins.
This past week, Biden voiced support for Major League Baseball moving its All-Star Game out of Georgia after decrying the state’s new voting law as restrictive and “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” A day later, the Transportation Department invoked the Civil Rights Act to halt a Texas highway that officials argued would have a disparate impact on Black and Latino residents. And on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” he signed an executive order to direct federal resources toward voting accessibility.
“This administration is using every lever that it has as aggressively as we can to ensure civil rights and equity,” said Catherine Lhamon, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for racial justice and equity. “We are not siloed off in a corner. This is a priority at the highest and every level of this administration.”
While top officials say the moves are effective, they warn that they are not a substitute for larger action. They stress that Biden’s legacy on civil rights is tied to the passage of two key pieces of legislation that would expand voting access and restore key sections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that blocked discriminatory changes to state’s voting laws. Recent attempts by GOP-led legislatures to change election laws based on former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud have lent urgency to some Democrats’ calls for reforming the rules of the Senate to move the bills forward.
“There are legislative tools that have to be used. There’s a bully pulpit that has to be used, there’s executive action that has to be used,” said former Attorney General Eric Holder. But “failure to pass those bills, get those bills put into law… I think that really would have a really substantial negative impact on them building a successful civil rights legacy.”
Biden’s willingness to personally dive into high-pitched civil rights issues presents a contrast from the early approach taken by his former boss, Barack Obama. The 44th president was often hesitant to get overly involved in such matters for fear that it could backfire. Occasionally it did. His early comments condemning the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates caused the biggest drop in support with white voters than “any single event” in his presidency, Obama wrote in his memoir.
Biden’s engagement has not been universally smooth, either. The president’s MLB comments put him at odds with Georgia Democrats, and the White House later stressed that he hadn’t directly called for a boycott of the game. But civil rights activists who spoke to POLITICO said that the president’s remarks about Georgia’s law still sent a signal to organizations like the NAACP and National Action Network that he wouldn’t avoid the multiple battlefronts of the country’s racial reckoning.
The White House said that Biden’s efforts to spotlight civil rights battles will “100 percent” continue. And they cited the Transportation Department’s use of their authority under the Civil Rights Act as an early instance of an agency following through on Biden’s day-one mandate to all departments to prioritize racial equity.