And he thanked one person in particular.
“Let’s hear it for Stacey Abrams!” Biden shouted. “Nobody, nobody in America has done more for the right to vote than Stacey. Stacey, you’re changing Georgia and You changed America and I want to personally thank you again.”
The president-elect then listed his priorities in roughly this order — sending $2,000 stimulus checks to states, fighting COVID, creating jobs, strengthening health care, relief for states reeling from COVID, voting rights, criminal justice, climate change, and racial justice.
Voting rights was on the list. But it wasn’t at the top of the list. And that’s how his presidency has proceeded.
In the year since Biden was elected, he did get those $2,000 checks (and then some), out the door to Americans. With Congress’s help, he sped trillions of dollars more in COVID relief to individuals and businesses and state governments out the door.
He passed a separate infrastructure bill with climate and renewable initiatives embedded in it. And the Build Back Better Bill is stalled in the Senate.
But he never made voting rights his top priority, or the “foundational” issue as Warnock puts it, in his administration in the same way that Black activists in Georgia have.
During the same year Biden moved on his other priorities, Warnock and Ossoff were elected to the Senate. And Stacey Abrams announced that she’s running to be the governor of Georgia.
Warnock made voting rights the topic of his very first floor speech. He called the bills passed by the Georgia General Assembly, “Jim Crowe in new clothes.”
In one of Abrams’ few policy-related public appearances, she testified on voting rights on Capitol Hill.
And the Georgia General Assembly and 18 other GOP-controlled states passed massive state-level election overhauls, without an answer from Democrats in Washington.
So it should have come as no surprise this week, when Biden returned to Atlanta to call specifically for federal voting rights, he was greeted by some members of the Black community, but not all. And most importantly, not by Stacey Abrams.
Black Voters Matter and the New Georgia Project announced they would not attend the speeches from Biden and Vice President Harris. Abrams cited a scheduling conflict to explain why she wouldn’t be there, either.
It would have been hard to imagine a year ago that Democrats and activists would come to this place so quickly.
But to understand how we got here, compare how much Democratic leaders in Washington have talked about passing federal voting rights legislation — and how little they’ve actually delivered.
Look at the fact that the Democrats’ very first bills to introduce this Congress were “H.R. 1″ and “S. 1,” two versions of the expansive “For the People Act,” that lumped voting rights legislation in with public financing of campaigns, a corporate tax increase, changes to PAC rules, a path to statehood for the District of Columbia, the list goes on and on.
The massive package passed the House, but predictably was blocked in the more conservative Senate.
The For the People Act has since been slimmed down after negotiations with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, and is now the Freedom to Vote Act. But it lacks the votes to pass the Senate without a filibuster. Nor does it have the political momentum to end the Senate’s filibuster rules to get it through to passage.
Biden has made good on many of the promises he made to Georgia Democrats last January, but he hasn’t delivered on the highest priority for the Black activists who helped him win the state.
Just before Biden and Harris came to Atlanta this week, the White House put out talking points calling federal legislation on voting rights “a national imperative.”
And they sent along a tip sheet of the ways the White House has strengthened the right to vote, including a list of the previous speeches that Biden and Harris have given on voting rights and democracy.
But none of those speeches has made a difference in the way that passing federal voting rights legislation would.
I’ll admit that I didn’t see the political wisdom in voting rights groups boycotting Biden’s speech. It’s an embarrassment to the president and generally a bad look for Democrats.
But it’s a message that people of all parties need to hear — that the issue isn’t about one party or one president for voting groups. It isn’t even about politics. It’s about change.
And it has echoes of King’s own approach , when political politics were a means to an end, but never the end itself.
When Dr. King delivered his “Give us the ballot,” speech in 1957, he called out Democrats and Republicans alike for failing to deliver on the equality promised three years earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
“Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice,” he said. Congress, even their assumed allies, “have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.”
Democrats may have now come to the point where they need to further scale back the Freedom to Vote Act to get a meaningful portion of it passed. Or they may need to do some serious horse-trading. Or they may need to find a way to get the votes to end the filibuster rules in the Senate, knowing full well Republicans could use the same rules against them under Republican Senate control as early as next year.
But they have clearly come to the point, pushed by Black activists making clear their support is not guaranteed, to understand that speeches alone are no longer enough. Now they have to really do something.
And that was the goal of the day’s events all along.