As Biden runs for re-election, black voters’ frustration mounts
President Biden began his re-election campaign this week by promising to “finish the job” he started in 2021. Nobody wants him to do that more than black voters.
Black voters, long the most loyal Democratic constituency, revived Mr. Biden’s troubled presidential campaign in South Carolina, sending him to the White House with his party, which controls the Senate, after two runoff victories in Georgia. In return, they hoped the government would go beyond previous presidents in trying to improve their communities — and they listened closely to his promises to do so.
Still, some of black voters’ top policy priorities — stronger federal protections from restrictive voting laws, student-loan debt forgiveness, and criminal justice and police accountability measures — have failed or stalled, some because of Republican opposition and others because Democrats didn’t have declined to circumvent the Senate filibuster rules. Those disappointments, highlighted in interviews with more than three dozen black voters, organizers and elected officials over the past few weeks, leave one wondering how enthusiastic the main Democratic constituency will be in 2024.
The interviews point to a looming split between black elected officials – who are almost uniformly praising Mr. Biden and predicting robust black turnout for him over the next year – and voters who are less certain.
“People are just sick of being tired,” said Travis Williams, a Democratic organizer in Dorchester County, SC. “They’re just tired of being tired and disappointed when our issues are never addressed.”
Marvin Dutton, 38, an entrepreneur who moved to Atlanta from Philadelphia in 2020, suggested Mr Biden needed to be “a little bit more sincere” instead of “supporting us when it comes time to vote.”
Mr. Biden’s re-election bid and his renewed promise to meet his first-term political goals have raised some concern and frustration among black voters in battleground states. Many believe the big promises he made to black communities have come to nothing.
Democrats can be confident that if Mr. Biden is his party’s nominee, as expected, a large majority of black voters will choose him over a Republican. The question for the party, however, is whether Democratic voters will bring the same level of energy that led to Mr. Biden’s victory in 2020.
In his campaign announcement, Mr. Biden made no secret of the importance of black voters to his re-election. Biden’s allies with the most airtime in his three-minute video, alongside his wife Vice President Kamala Harris, were Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton.
“I found no lack of enthusiasm,” said South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, who was Mr. Biden’s top black vice president in 2020. “I just couldn’t find him. And people keep saying it. But it’s not there.”
On Friday, Mr. Clyburn’s annual Fish Fry, which brings together candidates and hundreds of South Carolina Democrats, offered an early glimpse of that enthusiasm. The state party is preparing to hold its presidential primary first in the nomination process — a move Biden and the Democrats said was made to give black voters more leverage.
Biden’s allies claim his administration has delivered for black voters but has failed to trumpet some of his advances. Since taking office, he has committed billions of dollars to historically black colleges and universities and appointed more black judges, including Justice Jackson, to the Federal Bank than any other president. Black unemployment is at a record low. The economy, a top concern for black voters, has bounced back from its pandemic doldrums, although inflation, which spiked last summer, remains at sustained levels at decades.
“The president and vice president have prioritized issues that matter most to black Americans and are running to finish work,” said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign. “The campaign will work hard to earn every vote and build on their winning coalition for 2020.”
However, there is evidence of a dip in black voter engagement during the 2022 midterm election, although the results for Mr. Biden and his party were widely viewed as encouraging even though Republicans won the House.
The proportion of black voters in the electorate nationwide declined 1 percent from 2018 to 2022, the largest decline of any racial group measured, while the proportion of white voters with college degrees increased, according to data from HIT Strategies, a Democratic polling firm.
It doesn’t take much of a drop in black voters to change the outcome of elections in the most competitive states. In 2020, Mr. Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin by less than 35,000 votes each.
The number of ballots cast by voters in Milwaukee — home to a large majority of Wisconsin’s black population — for Democratic Senate candidates fell 18 percent from 2018 to 2022, while statewide turnout remained flat, according to Wisconsin voter data. Had Milwaukee given Democrats the same lead in 2022 as they did in 2018, Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, would have defeated Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican.
The city’s mayor, Cavalier Johnson, attributed the difference in part to efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to make the vote more difficult — particularly after Mr. Biden’s narrow victory there in 2020.
Mr Johnson cited a number of Mr Biden’s accomplishments for black voters: He appointed the first black woman, Justice Jackson, to the Supreme Court. He has emphasized the creation of manufacturing jobs that were once the heartbeat of Milwaukee but have been relocated overseas. And, Mr. Johnson added, black voters credit Mr. Biden with attempting to make electoral laws less restrictive, even when his efforts failed.
“You know Joe Biden stepped into the breach and stood up for them and fought to build the economy that is beneficial to people of color, which is African Americans, and also against some of the hate and discrimination against them People of Color and African Americans fought. ‘ said Mr Johnson.
Some black voters said in interviews that their frustration with the pace of change Mr. Biden promised in 2020 had them wondering if they would back him or perhaps sit out the next election.
Jennifer Roberts, 35, is a lifelong Democrat and was one of the black Georgians who helped elect Mr. Biden and Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. She was confident that Ms. Harris, the first woman of color to become vice president, would use her background in 2020 to advance policy regarding women of color and “prayed that they would win.”
Three years later, Ms Roberts’ perspective on Mr Biden’s promises has changed. Her mother moved in with her in Metro Atlanta because of rising rent costs. Inflation has put additional strain on the tow truck business she and her husband own.
Ms Roberts now says she would support former President Donald J. Trump if he were the Republican nominee next year. What she wants and has yet to receive is “tangible help” – and she believes Mr Trump’s economic policies could potentially provide it.
“I understand he tried,” she said of Mr. Biden. “If you don’t address things head-on, if they don’t match what you’ve said publicly, you can’t just sweep it under the rug.”
In Philadelphia, Lamont Wilson, 45, an information technology executive, voted for Mr Biden in 2020 but said he has not been inspired by any 2024 candidate so far. He said Mr Biden “did a lot of good” but failed to live up to his expectations.
Mr Wilson said he hopes Mr Biden will stick to his promise to eliminate student debt – the president announced a $400 billion plan to write off up to $20,000 in debt to certain individuals, although the top Court could block this. According to the Department of Education, black college graduates carry an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates.
“Get rid of that debt and give people a chance,” said Mr. Wilson.
Nocola Hemphill, an activist and state party delegate in Winnsboro, SC, said she’s also heard grumbling from black voters about Mr. Biden. But she saw this as a form of accountability, not evidence of a deeper problem.
“Everyone is not happy with the administration,” she said. “And it’s not that we don’t want to see Biden run. We just want to make sure he keeps his promises.”
Younger, first-time black voters like Evan Spann, 19, a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, are also hoping Mr. Biden will deliver. Mr Spann said he wanted to hear specific plans from Mr Biden for his second term.
“I think what he needs to do is say straight out what he’s going to do,” Mr. Spann said. “And then I think he really needs to show up and talk to us about it.”
Biden’s supporters say that while some black voters may be frustrated by the party, Democrats remain a safer bet than Republicans, who have opposed legislation protecting voting rights and cutting student-loan debt which black lawmakers and voters have lobbied. In several GOP-controlled state legislatures, lawmakers have attempted to remove black history classes from school curricula, ban books by black authors, and drew convention maps that restrict black voting rights.
Democrats plan to underscore the GOP’s record on these issues.
“Black voters understand all of this,” Mr. Clyburn said. “And we’re going to spend a lot of time this year and next to remind them who’s doing it.” At the same time, the Democrats need to win over voters who are reluctant to endorse the party again.
“It’s a difficult conversation to go back into these communities and explain why we didn’t get criminal justice reform,” said Kevin Harris, a former Executive Secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It’s a difficult conversation to go into these communities and talk about why we haven’t gotten the protection we need with the right to vote.”
He continued, “This is a difficult conversation. But you get it anyway.”
Jon Hurdle Contributed reporting from Philadelphia.