Biden’s methods seen as ineffectual
Many activists tire of hearing what president can’t do
WASHINGTON — On restoring access to abortion, President Joe Biden says his hands are tied without more Democratic senators. Declaring a public health emergency on the matter has downsides, his aides say. And as for gun violence, Biden has been clear about the limits of what he can do on his own.
“There’s a Constitution,” Biden said from the South Lawn in late May. “I can’t dictate this stuff.”
Throughout this century, presidents have often pushed aggressively to extend the boundaries of executive power. Biden talks more about its limits.
When it comes to the thorniest issues confronting his administration, the instinct from Biden and his White House is often to speak about what he cannot do, citing constraints imposed by the courts or insufficient support in a Congress controlled by his own party — though barely.
He injects a heavy dose of reality in speaking to an increasingly restive Democratic base, which has demanded action on issues such as abortion and voting rights before the November elections.
White House officials and the president’s allies say that approach typifies a leader who has always promised to be honest with Americans, including about how expansive his powers really are.
But Biden’s realpolitik tendencies are colliding with
an activist base agitating for a more aggressive party leader — both in tone and substance. Although candidate Biden sold himself as the person who best knew the ways of Washington, he nonetheless is hamstrung by the same obstacles that have bedeviled his predecessors.
“I think that if you hesitate from important actions like this just because of a legal challenge, then you would do nothing,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who has been pressing for more administrative actions on abortion. “People all across the country are expecting us — the leaders — to do something.”
approach could be to protect himself if the White House falls short — like Democrats did in negotiating a party-line spending package centered on the social safety net and climate provisions. That sweeping effort had been steadily thwarted due to resistance from two moderate Democrats, one of them West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who on Thursday scuttled for the time being a scaled-back effort that focused on climate and taxes.
That development prompted calls from Democratic senators for Biden to unilaterally declare a climate emergency. In a
statement Friday while in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Biden pledged to take “strong executive action to meet this moment” on climate.
But in recent weeks, that gap between “yes, we can” and “no, we can’t” has been most glaring on abortion.
Since the Supreme Court last month overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973 with its constitutional protections for abortion, the White House has come under considerable pressure to try to maintain access to abortion in conservative states that are set to outlaw the procedure.
Advocates have implored Biden to look into
establishing abortion clinics on federal lands. They have asked the administration to help transport women seeking abortions to a state that offers the procedure. And Democratic lawmakers are pressing the White House to declare a public health emergency.
Without rejecting the ideas completely, White House aides have expressed skepticism about such requests. Even as he signed an executive order last week to begin addressing the issue, Biden had one clear, consistent message: that he could not do this on his own, shifting attention to the other end of
“The only way we can secure a woman’s right to choose and the balance that existed is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law,” Biden said shortly after the court struck down Roe. “No executive action from the president can do that.”
Shortly after declaring that the filibuster — a Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most legislation to advance — should not apply for abortion and privacy measures, Biden acknowledged during a meeting with Democratic governors that his newfound position would not make a difference, at least not right away.
“The filibuster should not stand in the way of us being able to do that,” Biden said of writing the protections of Roe into federal law. “But right now, we don’t have the votes in the Senate to change the filibuster.”
But some advocates don’t want to hear from Biden about what he can’t do.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the group We Testify, which advocates for women who have had abortions, said the administration should proceed with a public health emergency even if it’s eventually blocked by the courts.
“It tells those people who need abortions that the president is trying to help them, and that the thing that’s stopping him is the court, not himself, or his own projections on what could possibly happen,” she said, later adding, “The fact that he’s an institutionalist and cannot look around and see the institutions around him are crumbling is the problem.”