President Joe Biden took the stage at an Independence Day barbecue just a few hours after the latest horrific shooting to upend an American city — but at his first opportunity to address the nation in person about the killings in Highland Park, Ill., he did so only obliquely.
“You all heard what happened today,” Biden said. “Things will get better still, but not without more hard work together.”
It was not until about two hours later, after singer Andy Grammer finished an acoustic version of “Give Love,” that the president returned to the stage and attempted to respond to the tragedy more fulsomely, calling for a moment of silence and decrying the spate of mass shootings. “We’ve got a lot more work to do,” Biden said. “We’ve got to get this under control.”
In contrast, J.B. Pritzker, Illinois’ Democratic governor, delivered a fiery response that took direct aim at those blocking gun-control legislation. “If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” he said, seething while Biden was consoling. “I’m furious. I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence.”
In the view of many distraught Democrats, the country is facing a full-blown crisis on a range of fronts and Biden seems unable or unwilling to respond with appropriate force. Democracy is under direct attack, they say, as Republicans change election rules and the Supreme Court rapidly rewrites American law. Mass shootings are routine, abortion rights have ended and Democrats could suffer big losses in the next election.
Biden’s response is often a mix of scolding Republicans, urging Americans to vote Democratic and voicing broad optimism about the country. For some Democrats, that risks a dangerous failure to meet the moment.
“There is a leadership vacuum right now, and he’s not filling it,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic consultant and former top adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “I sympathize with the argument that there’s very little they can do legislatively. But in moments of crisis, the president is called upon to be a leader. And when people are feeling scared and angry and outraged, they look to him for that, and they’re not getting much.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden decided on his own that he wanted to return to the stage on Independence Day to deliver fuller remarks and that his later comments were not a recognition that his first ones had fallen short of the moment. “There have been many times the president has spoken forcefully, urgently, about a moment that currently exists in our country, which is a gun violence epidemic,” Jean-Pierre said. “To say that this president has not shown urgency, it’s just false.”
But as the Democratic rank and file’s thirst for a more combative attitude becomes increasingly evident, other party leaders are beginning to showcase an alternative tone, one that goes far more sharply at Republican attitudes and tactics. Pritzker mocked the notion that “you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine,” and Gavin Newsom, California Democratic governor, has been displaying a notably pugnacious spirit.
On July Fourth, Newsom took the unusual step of airing an ad in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is widely seen as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate and has been implementing deeply conservative policies. DeSantis has rapidly become a detested figure among liberals, and Newsom sought to take him on in conservative terms, casting him as an enemy of liberty.
“Freedom? It’s under attack in your state,” Newsom said in the ad, addressing Florida residents and citing book bans, voting restrictions and laws on classroom instruction. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight. Or join us in California — where we still believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate and the freedom to love. Don’t let them take your freedom.”
In case anyone missed the point, Ian Calderon, the Democratic former majority leader of the California State Assembly, tweeted: “Governor @GavinNewsom is the only Dem that seems to understand that democrats everywhere want their leaders to push back with a strong message and to stop letting the GOP control the narrative. Republicans are loud and it’s time for Democrats to get louder.”
Biden has never been his party’s most vociferous or combative voice, and throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, he often faced criticism from within his party that he was too amenable to Republicans — too conciliatory a politician and too genial a person — to capture the fighting mood of a party ready to take on President Donald Trump.
White House officials argue that the fact that Biden won both the primary race and the general election underscores the benefits of trusting the president’s political instincts. They have long taken pride in not getting swayed by the conversations that dominate on Twitter, particularly from the left.
Biden’s supporters say he is just as outraged as Pritzker and others after the recent shootings in Highland Park; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Uvalde, Texas, noting that he helped enact the first significant, if modest, federal gun-control measure in decades. They also say he has lobbed the exact same criticisms at DeSantis as those cited by Newsom in his ad.
Biden has, if anything, been criticized at times for going too far in his tone, his aides note, as when he compared modern-day Republicans to 1960s-era segregationists, incurring the wrath of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others, including some in his own party.
An administration official said that while Democrats have long expressed private alarm at Biden’s perceived missteps, the Supreme Court abortion decision seemed to represent a turning point. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to deliver a candid assessment, the official said it catalyzed three key frustrations — the high stakes; Biden’s inability to do much unilaterally to fight the decision; and concern that the White House would let the moment pass without using it to galvanize fellow Democrats.
On Thursday, Biden called for overturning the filibuster to help codify Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, into law. But despite knowing for weeks that the court decision probably was coming, the move followed a familiar pattern, with Biden taking nearly a week to suggest changing the filibuster rule when Democrats wanted more urgency.
Beyond that, some local and state-level Democratic leaders worry that Biden’s tone does not reflect the deep alarm that many Americans are feeling over inflation and rising gas prices.
“We need more done from the top of the Democratic leadership — which is the president — in terms of promoting the Democratic issues,” said Sam Baydoun, a county commissioner in Wayne County, Mich., adding, “He has to be more forceful in defending the Democratic Party and what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said she is worried that the party is not ready for some of the attacks coming its way. Even before the Republican primary in her state, a GOP candidate has sent out mailers attacking Dingell as a “Pelosi robot” who embraces a laundry list of liberal priorities.
“I don’t have a primary, and I’m considered the ‘safe’ Democrat in Michigan,” Dingell said. “I don’t think anybody is safe. And the mailer is misleading and lies, but as Democrats we have to figure out how we’re going to forcefully push back on these mistruths and be strong about it.”
Biden’s supporters say his decency and calm do not equate to haplessness.
“What I will tell Democrats and Republicans is don’t confuse kindness for weakness, or him having manners for weakness,” said Cedric Richmond, a former senior White House aide who is now a top official at the Democratic National Committee. “People made that mistake during the primary. We stayed the course, we stayed focused, and we won.
“If they’re just looking for a president who is going to name-call, that’s not him,” Richmond added. “He will show and draw sharp comparisons, and I think you’ll see it more as we get closer for people to make a choice.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who was national co-chairman of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and has not been afraid to criticize some of Biden’s policy decisions, said he worried that the critiques of the president from within the party are getting too pointed and could be counterproductive.
“He didn’t get there by accident. He’s the president of the United States. He’s the leader of our party. He defeated Donald Trump,” Khanna said. “He’s owed a degree of respect, and I say that as someone to his left. There’s a tone in which to challenge the administration and offer new ideas, and that tone ought to be one of good faith to help the president, not throwing darts to weaken him when he’s the leader of our party.”
But some in the party are upset that the White House did not have a more forceful, proactive plan in place when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has called on Biden to expand the Supreme Court, a move he has reaffirmed he will not consider. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been among those calling on him to open federal lands to abortion clinics, a decision the White House has rejected, saying it could jeopardize the safety of women who travel to the clinics.
Biden has dismissed other ideas by saying they would be struck down in court or would never pass Congress. His critics say he should be pushing on all fronts, not second-guessing actions before attempting them.
“What the president and the Democratic Party needs to come to terms with is that this is not just a crisis of Roe, this is a crisis of our democracy,” Ocasio-Cortez said recently NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is a crisis of legitimacy, and President Biden must address that.”
The congresswoman, a leader of the party’s liberal wing, has also said she is not ready to endorse Biden in a 2024 presidential primary. Pritzker, too, has raised the possibility that Biden might face a primary challenge.
“That’s not something I’m encouraging, but it’s certainly possible,” he told NBC News last week. “We’ve seen it in the past.”
The Illinois governor also raised eyebrows recently with a trip to New Hampshire, a vital state for any presidential aspirant, where he was the keynote speaker at the annual convention for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Richmond said that some of the liberals’ calls for action are flashy but unrealistic and that Biden faces hard long-term choices while others are chasing short-term relevance.
“Here’s the bottom line: My family, certainly Pritzker’s family, Newsom’s family and the president’s family — they’re going to be OK,” Richmond said. “But there are millions of people, if the election doesn’t go in the right direction, that are not going to be OK. We don’t have the luxury of following impulse. This is life-or-death for so many communities.”