The Biden White House loves to use Vice President Kamala Harris as a human shield to take the flak for their failures. On Monday, her mission was to go on CNN and deliver the bad news that the administration would not squeeze Senate Democrats to get them to kill the filibuster with the goal of codifying abortion rights into federal law. “Right now, given the current composition of the Senate, the votes aren’t there,” Harris said, before reverting to the uninspiring message of voting more. She added, “The reality of it is, we don’t even get to really answer that, in terms of what happens or not, if we don’t have the numbers in the Senate.”
This was very much in keeping with the Biden White House’s lackluster approach to the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the constitutional right to reproductive freedom. As Reuters reported on Wednesday, “Biden and officials are concerned that more radical moves would be politically polarizing ahead of November’s midterm elections, undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court or lack strong legal footing, sources inside and outside the White House say.”
After outcry from progressives, Biden modified his tune slightly on Thursday, saying he actually did support suspending the filibuster for a law codifying abortion rights. This, of course, remains a purely theoretical matter unless the Democrats gain more seats in the Senate—and hold the House of Representatives—in the midterms. Even in that scenario, it’s unclear how many Senate seats they would need to restore abortion rights. Some argue that even two more seats would be enough, given that the only current holdouts on the filibuster are Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But it’s entirely possible that there are other covert obstructionists in the Democratic caucus who just aren’t speaking out because they have a convenient cover in the form of Manchin and Sinema. Even in the best electoral scenario, the fate of reproductive freedom is uncertain.
Some congressional Democrats have come out for bolder action. As Reuters notes, “lawmakers including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have suggested Biden limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction or expand its membership, end the legislative ‘filibuster’ rule, build abortion clinics on federal lands, declare a national emergency and establish Planned Parenthood outposts outside U.S. national parks, among other options.”
To be sure, some of these proposals are risky in the sense that they would receive blowback from Republicans, including GOP-appointed judges. And following these actions would require even more radicalism in the future: If Biden leased out land to abortion clinics on federal land, he’d have to be prepared to give blanket preemptive pardons to doctors and patients in case they are charged in the future.
Yet, despite the risks, these radical proposals also bring considerable benefit: They would establish that reproductive rights are crucial, worth fighting for, and have the full support of the Democratic Party. They would make Biden into a fighting president, the leader of a just and necessary cause.
But it is precisely because they involve fighting that Biden shies away from them. He’s a conciliator, not a combatant. His whole political persona is of the great bipartisan, the man who can bring people from rival camps together. He launched his political campaign in 2019 on the premise that Donald Trump had dangerously destabilized the United States through polarization and racism. Biden saw himself as the man who could heal those wounds. His goal as president is to lower the temperature, avoid partisan spats, and restore the USA to a pre-Trumpian peace of elite comity.
Biden, like many leaders in the Democratic Party, illustrates the dangers of gerontocracy. He’s someone who rose to success in the system many decades ago and so came to love the consensus that he believed governed the rules of politics. But the system he loved has been crumbling for a long time. Newt Gingrich’s ascension to House speaker in 1994 was the first crack, to be followed by successive blows to consensus politics: the rabid culture-war politics of Karl Rove, Mitch McConnell’s Machiavellian gamesmanship in the Senate, the rise of the Tea Party, and finally the triumph of Trump.
On an intellectual level, Biden surely knows the old order is gone forever. But on an emotional level, he seems unable to accept that fact. He acts as if, like the homesick Dorothy trapped in the land of Oz, he just has to keep saying “There’s no place like home” and all will be well.
Consider again the list of reasons for inaction summarized by Reuters: Radical action would “would be politically polarizing ahead of November’s midterm elections, undermine public trust in institutions like the Supreme Court or lack strong legal footing.”
If you are a politician who really wants to secure backing for an agenda, these aren’t reasons for inaction but rather for forging ahead. After all, if you want to fight an election where you strongly disagree with the rival party, then polarization is good. You would want to underscore, highlight, and proclaim as often and as loudly as possible that you believe in abortion rights and the GOP doesn’t. And if you have a court that is deeply reactionary (not just on abortion but on a host of other issues you care about like climate, gun control, and election laws), then “undermining public trust” is a good thing. Lately, the courts have been delegitimizing themselves at a breakneck pace—which creates a political opportunity for Democrats to push for court expansion and reform. (According to a recent Gallup poll, only 25 percent of Americans have confidence in the courts.)
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have observed, both Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt faced reactionary courts that stood in the way of their agendas. Those embattled presidents didn’t shirk the fight; they actively asserted that elected officials have the right and duty to challenge out-of-control courts.
Joe Biden is no Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. He’s a placeholder president, someone whose main historical task was to defeat Trump. That worthy mission has been accomplished—and now Biden wants to pretend that Trump never happened. But the same reactionary politics that created Trump are still around, all the more dangerous for being institutionalized in the courts and the mainstream of the GOP. Biden is woefully ill-equipped to fight the battles of the present, let alone the struggles of the future.