The proclamation “I will aid and abet abortion” appeared across social media soon after Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justices did what they were appointed to do: overturn Roe v. Wade. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s a great idea to advertise one’s intent to engage in legally risky behavior, the posts signaled rising anger over the court’s endorsement of forced pregnancy. Notably absent amid that anger was any actionable outrage from President Biden, who had nearly two months after a leaked Supreme Court draft to mobilize against the elimination of legal access to abortion in at least 13, and as many as 26, states. Instead Biden has only just begun “mulling” the option of declaring a public health emergency, after taking two weeks following the decision to issue an executive order that some called a decent first step and others described as toothless.
Of course, there is no magic wand here—no one, Biden included, has the ability to reinstate Roe’s protections overnight. But the tenor of Biden’s responses to criticism of his initial inaction has been that since he can’t do much, why do anything at all?
Biden has long shown an unwillingness to champion abortion rights. But he’s also long been desperate for the presidency. His tepid response to Dobbs signals a troubling failure to understand his responsibilities to the voters who elected him, and to comprehend the power of political messaging—that messaging is, arguably, politics itself. Instead his paralysis allows the anti-abortion right to further dominate the conversation, a rookie mistake from a 79-year-old who has spent 50 years on the national political stage. Now is the time to make sure that tens of millions of highly motivated, pissed-off voters feel heard, seen, and appreciated.
And yet the White House is blaming “activists” for getting grabby about reproductive freedom. This contempt for the abortion providers, storytellers, funders, and clinic defenders who have dared to demand better from the president and the Democratic Party while risking their careers, their families, and sometimes their lives in support of abortion access reeks of condescension toward some of the party’s most reliable supporters. And it is an unforced error that could cost Biden the one thing he really does seem to care about: his job.
While Biden has repeatedly missed opportunities to protect abortion access—he could have taken action when he took office, when the Dobbs leak dropped, or the day the decision came down, instead of appearing to be caught off guard by a ruling the entire country knew was coming in a case that has been ongoing for years—he never misses an opportunity to remind us about the next election. Large swaths of his party are in lockstep, including Nancy Pelosi, who this spring campaigned for an anti-abortion Democrat and still had the gall to use the end of Roe to raise money.
Now Americans—the majority of whom support legal abortion—are caught up in the Democratic Party leadership’s ouroboros of feigned helplessness. Democrats claim they can’t protect abortion unless we vote for them, so we must wait patiently for the next opportunity to vote for people who have not yet protected abortion, but who may do so at some future time, but only if we’ve voted enough.
“Vote in a few months” is a breathtakingly inept and cynical rejoinder to the problem of forced pregnancy today. But it reflects a systemic problem with American liberalism: a refusal to take the most forward-thinking parts of the Democratic base seriously. I’m not even talking about radical lefties—it’s the Congressional Black Caucus and popular senators like Elizabeth Warren who are calling on Biden to declare a public health emergency. Rather than acknowledge the lived experiences of people of color, the Democratic establishment panders to imagined white, middle-class, center-right voters who it believes will actually switch parties if they hear Biden say “Fund the police” enough.
Now is not the time to reluctantly do the bare minimum. From attacks on trans people to racist “critical race theory” bans, the fascism of the American right is not merely creeping—it’s accelerating, with the Supreme Court’s help. Democrats must get ahead of these battles, even if that means taking a few hits, instead of promising to jump into the ring only when victory is guaranteed.