African American voters helped propel President Joe Biden to the White House and were instrumental in securing Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. A year later, some of Biden’s most loyal supporters are increasingly frustrated about 2020 campaign promises not realized.
“I voted for Biden but feel disappointed his administration hasn’t delivered more for the Black community,” said Joseph Mitchell, 36, of Silver Spring, Maryland. “There are many places where Black people are hurting, impacted by COVID-19 and the economic downturn from the pandemic.”
Mitchell told VOA he wanted more action on economic empowerment and health care.
“Our community needs a helping hand, especially now,” he said.
It’s a familiar message aimed at Biden, who campaigned on delivering on a broad range of economic, health and social policy reforms to improve the lives of African Americans.
Those promises helped him win 92% of the Black vote in last year’s election, according to a Pew Research Center study.
Biden, a former vice president and longtime senator, can point to key economic initiatives enacted during his time in the Oval Office, including pandemic-related federal stimulus and a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But ambitious social initiatives that would address long-standing complaints by African Americans have stalled in Congress, including protecting voting rights, enacting police reform and winning passage of a massive social safety net and environmental spending plan known as Build Back Better.
“You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” said then-President-elect Biden as he thanked Black voters in a victory speech last year.
After taking office in January, Biden took executive action on several fronts, issuing orders to spur investment in minority-owned businesses, boost minority home ownership and solidify funding for historically Black institutions of higher learning.
But getting more substantial initiatives through Congress, even though Democrats hold narrow majorities, has proved difficult. Congressional negotiations have failed to yield a bipartisan police reform bill. Senate Republicans have blocked voting rights legislation. Senate Democrats have yet to achieve unified support for Build Back Better.
Some observers fault Biden’s approach and see him as too passive in the face of congressional inaction.
“I think President Biden may appear tone deaf in the way he’s approaching trying to implement these social policies,” said Jatia Wrighten, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
“Democrats have a majority in both the House and the Senate, but Mr. Biden is so busy trying to ensure that everyone is on the same page to compromise and negotiate,” Wrighten told VOA, adding that impatience and building frustration in Black communities pose a political danger for Biden and Democrats more broadly heading into the 2022 midterm elections. “I think the president is losing the voters who got him there because he doesn’t come off as taking a stronger stance on issues of race.”
Role of Congress
At the same time, some Black voters say they understand Biden can’t enact transformative legislation on his own.
“I feel the frustration, but he needs the help of Congress,” Leighton Newlin, an African American councilman-elect in Princeton, New Jersey, told VOA. “Biden promised these things because he thought he was going to get better reaction and cooperation from members of his own party. Biden has failed to deliver on some things important to Blacks, but I don’t put all the blame on the president.
“I think the president’s policy approaches may have been a little more effective in a different time,” said Wrighten. “But in this political climate, they’re just not resonating with the Black community as being serious, effective and strong.”
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have cheered the stymieing of major planks of Biden’s agenda, arguing that the federal government should not dictate to individual U.S. states how to run elections and that supercharging social spending would further kindle inflation in the United States.
Legislative battles ahead
The coming year is expected to see renewed efforts by Biden to win congressional approval of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. The bills, which would counteract state-led efforts to limit or scrutinize voting in ways seen by critics as making it harder for minority voters to cast ballots, passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but have been held up in a politically divided Senate.
Republican lawmakers call the measures a “power grab” that would benefit Democrats at the ballot box.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has pledged to bring the bills to the floor for votes in January. Biden continues to signal strong support for both.
“There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights. It’s the single biggest thing,” Biden said on December 16 while touring tornado damage in Kentucky.
The administration’s push for voting rights comes after a year in which several Republican-controlled state legislatures enacted restrictive voting laws.
“I think when he took office the president should have started his agenda with voting rights because it’s the foundation of our democracy,” Newlin said. “Without that, we have no democracy.”
Despite the holdups, Biden told students at South Carolina State University, a historically Black college, earlier this month that he was not giving up on strengthening voting protections.
“We must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We must,” Biden said. “And we are going to keep up the fight until we get it done.”
Civil rights activists want more than words.
“Don’t forget that Black voters landed a victory for this president and this Congress, so don’t fail us again,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, head of the nation’s largest civil rights organization, in a prepared statement responding to the Senate’s late-October failure to pass federal voting rights legislation.
For its part, the White House insists the fight is not over.
“Our agenda for the Black community is not about one or two bills,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a briefing with reporters last month. “Clearly, the voting rights and police reform bills are critical and important, and we’re going to continue to work very hard towards them, but it is weaved throughout numerous policy initiatives, executive orders, legislation.”
Jean-Pierre added, “Equity is at the center of everything Biden does as president.”
Biden’s approval ratings have dipped in recent months and now stand at just 43% nationwide, according to an average of polling data compiled by fivethirtyeight.com. Polling data reported last month also showed a decline in Biden’s approval ratings among African Americans.
Such data has Democrats fretting and Republicans salivating as the nation heads into an election year. Political observers note that bipartisan cooperation typically becomes even more difficult as an election season heats up.
“With the midterms coming, these sorts of initiatives [important to Black voters] will face major obstacles, and overcoming them is going to be a difficult job for President Biden,” Wrighten said.