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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Smith: Biden’s political balancing act

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President Joe Biden’s high-wire act would give the Flying Wallendas pause. Though his approval rating is high, he has potential trouble spots — and not just with a predictably intransigent Republican Party. Some members of Biden’s base are wary.

For example, African Americans expect substantial policy initiatives that specifically benefit us. Failing to meet those expectations have implications for him, as well as for Vice President Kamala Harris.

Dr. Umar Johnson, who is known as a “Pan-Afrikanist” scholar, has accused Biden of failing to act aggressively on behalf of African Americans. As evidence he cites the executive order regarding transgender Americans that Biden signed on his first day in office. Johnson also references Biden’s executive order denouncing discrimination and violence against Americans who hail from Asia or the Pacific Islands (AAPI). Johnson and others want definitive action regarding African Americans, who Biden himself acknowledges as the group that is most responsible for his being elected.

The problem with Dr. Johnson’s example regarding transgender Americans is that the order simply reinforces the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. (The Court held that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender employees from discrimination.) Similarly, the other executive order merely extends to the AAPI community the same legal protections for which African Americans have successfully fought. Importantly, while these are bold actions, their ultimate efficacy is not clear. (For the record, Dr. Johnson says that he doesn’t oppose either order.)

While I disagree with Johnson’s reasoning, he has a point. Bill Clinton was often referred to as “the first Black president,” despite the fact that some of his actions affirmatively harmed African Americans. The most prominent example is the 1994 crime law (of which then-Sen. Biden was the primary author). Further, in the wake of stubborn racial inequality and ongoing police brutality, many African Americans feel that the actual first Black president, Barack Obama, did not “do more” for us. The point is that Biden, fairly or otherwise, will be judged in the context of his predecessors’ records (especially those of Democrats). And, if the overwhelming majority of African Americans conclude that he isn’t sufficiently in our corner, Vice President Harris will have a more difficult time becoming his successor than she otherwise would.

By the time this column is published, Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman will have offered a formal response to President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress. Bowman is decidedly on Biden’s left flank. As a centrist Democrat, I normally would be uncomfortable with this highly unusual situation. But this is an urgent political moment.

Frankly, Democrats have been too timid in recent decades. Republicans have no compunction about pushing legislation, even when it is unpopular. They are much more willing to lose on “principle” than to play things safely. That is how, for example, the Tea Party rose to power. That is how conspiracy-spewing, QAnon-embracing extremists have taken hold. Further, Donald Trump proved that a message that is laser-focused on appealing to people who are disaffected, in combination with rank-and-file members of one’s political party, drives up turn out.

To be clear, I am not comparing Bowman to the likes of Marjorie Taylor Green or Donald Trump; there is no Democratic analog to QAnon. Rather, my point is that, when it comes to advocating for their beliefs, there is no shame in Republicans’ game. And they have demonstrated an unbelievable ability to stick together. Democrats could learn something from them. Democrats start with a numerical advantage nationally. They need to exploit it. In our favor.

Candidate Joe Biden’s pitch was largely based on his genuine desire to unite the nation. Since his election, he has attempted to reach across the aisle. Yet, Biden isn’t as willing to try to convert those on the far right who are not going to side with him under any circumstance. This is an important departure from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. (Who can forget Clinton going after Sister Soujah or Obama comparing himself to Ronald Reagan?)

Generally speaking, Biden seems to be willing to push forward with an ambitious agenda — political consequences be damned. (He likely is unfettered due to the knowledge that he’s only going to be a one-term president.) That is precisely what African Americans have been waiting for regarding our interests.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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