WASHINGTON — Marking the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, President Joe Biden last week signed an executive order to reform federal policing practices as Floyd’s relatives, reform advocates and civil rights leaders looked on.
A string orchestra’s slow rendition of “Hail to the Chief” lent the White House ceremony a mournful air and served as a dirge for the hopes for more substantive police reform demanded by activists that Biden and Congress have failed to enact.
“The work of our time — healing the soul of this nation — is ongoing and unfinished,” Biden told the crowd, noting the frustratingly slow nature of progress. “This is a start.”
But slow, incremental progress may not be enough to convince Black voters that Biden has delivered on his campaign promises to reform police forces, enact voting rights legislation and reduce racial inequities.
If anything, the executive order and other recent actions have highlighted the limitations Biden faces in advancing more ambitious reforms. And his centrist positioning on this issue — on top of the failure by a Congress nominally controlled by Democrats to advance legislation to reform police practices or protect voting rights — risks alienating the critical voting bloc his party needs to stave off electoral disaster in November.
His executive order, for example, does not apply to the thousands of local police departments that interact the most with the public. As Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged during the signing ceremony, the order was “no substitute for legislation nor does it accomplish everything we know must be done.”
In addition to being flanked by civil rights leaders at the ceremony, the president was joined by law enforcement officials who had input in crafting the order and softening its use-of-force standards. The signing also came just two months after Biden’s resounding call to “fund the police” during his March State of the Union address, a rebuke of liberal activists’ calls to “defund the police,” a mantra that party strategists say cost Democrats during the 2020 election.
Black leaders are not hiding their frustration with Biden’s messaging on the issue, nor his administration’s failure to get a police reform bill through Congress.
“They have to be careful on this crime stuff,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a progressive organization working in six swing states this year to activate Black voters. “Black voters worry a lot about crime, about gun violence. But no one that we talk to says the answer is that we need to increase police budgets.”
Ben Jealous, the former NAACP leader, blasted Biden’s policing order as “too timid,” arguing that it will “minimize limits on the use of force… [and] sidestep addressing systemic racism” and accusing him of “bowing to the wishes of an entrenched police union establishment.”
The lack of progress on police reform is just one element of a broader policy agenda that Biden promised to push on behalf of African Americans, his party’s core base of voters. White House officials say he has delivered on many of those pledges.
He has taken historic steps to diversify the government. Harris is the nation’s first Black woman to serve as vice president, and Biden recently tapped a Black woman to be White House press secretary. The president succeeded in winning Senate confirmation in April for the first Black woman, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, to a lifetime term on the Supreme Court.
He’s given impassioned speeches about the importance of voting rights and America’s oft-overlooked history of racial violence. He signed a federal lynching ban into law and issued numerous executive orders — granting clemency to dozens of low-level drug offenders, directing more funding to historically Black colleges and universities and reducing gun-related crimes. Following the massacre of 10 Black people in Buffalo earlier this month, he delivered a speech in that city decrying the dangers of white supremacy, saying it was “a poison running through our body politic.”
The president is also considering forgiving student loan debt, a move that would be cheered by civil rights advocates because they argue such loans disproportionately affect Black women and Black families. Student loan forgiveness is viewed especially by younger generations of Black voters as “a racial justice issue, gender justice issue and an economic justice issue,” said Nse Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit that seeks to boost civic engagement and is focusing on boosting Black voter participation.
White House officials pointed to a new administration report that showed the $1.9-trillion pandemic-relief plan passed in March 2021 “spurred the most equitable recovery in memory.” They noted that following the law’s passage Black unemployment recorded its fastest decline since 1983 and Black households saw annualized incomes grow by about 7.5% over the past two years. A child tax credit included in the law, known as the American Rescue Plan, led to the lowest child poverty rate on record.
Cedric Richmond, a former senior advisor to Biden who recently moved to the Democratic National Committee, said that in distributing the relief plan’s funding the administration was “intentional about equity” and ensuring that money flowed to underserved communities.
Richmond acknowledged, however, that the administration has suffered major setbacks in Congress, where Republicans have monolithically opposed the president’s agenda and Democrats only control the evenly divided Senate thanks to Harris’ tie-breaking vote. That means Democrats cannot afford to lose a single senator if they hope to win passage of legislation.
The child tax credit, for instance, expired in January after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) torpedoed Biden’s larger social spending bill that included an extension. The reluctance of Manchin and another Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have denied their party leaders the 50 votes needed to pass legislation using the budget reconciliation process or by amending filibuster rules requiring 60 votes to end floor debate and advance a bill.
While House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act last year, but it stalled in the Senate. After Biden delivered a fiery speech about voting rights, Senate Democrats in January held a quixotic vote to change the filibuster to advance a package of voting rights protections that they knew would fail without Manchin’s support, intent on at least signaling their commitment to fight hard on the issue to the voters most likely to be frustrated by the lack of progress.
“Voting rights is a top-two or -three issue for Black voters,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on President Obama’s campaigns.
Belcher said Democrats would be smart to shift the narrative, emphasizing that “House Democrats heard you and passed the legislation you wanted. It was Republicans who refused to give it a vote.”
“The key to this election is putting Republicans on the defensive for sabotaging a popular agenda,” Belcher continued. “We’ll talk about what we’ve done, but this election has to be about Republicans for Democrats to have a shot. If this is all about Joe Biden, Democrats are going to get their asses handed to them.”
Richmond, the former White House adviser, said Democrats will work hard to “to let people know that this is what we’ve been able to do with 50 [Senate] votes. And if we had 52 votes in the Senate, we’d be able to do a lot more.”
Facing strong headwinds and historical precedent — the party of the incumbent president typically loses seats in an administration’s first midterm election — Democrats have beefed up their investment in key states, with a strong focus on Black voters.
In Georgia, for instance, the DNC plans to spend three times as much this year as the party did in 2018, investing in full-time staff across the state, paid media and voter organizing and outreach. Black voters, who make up a growing and sizable chunk of Georgia’s electorate, played a key role in ensuring Democrats picked up the state’s two Senate seats in the 2020 elections.
With the GOP-controlled state Legislature’s passage last year of a law that complicated access to absentee ballots, and limited drop boxes and mobile voting centers, grass-roots organizations are working hard to register and educate voters in hopes of getting them to the polls.
“Georgians know about the power of their vote,” said Ufot, of the New Georgia Project. “People are gearing up for the fight.”
It’s not just voting rights and police reform that are on the minds of Black voters. They also share the wider electorate’s frustrations about the ongoing pandemic, rising consumer costs and the general chaos and anxiety pervading American life, according to Shropshire of BlackPAC.
“People are clear that just because Trump lost, it doesn’t mean the country is back on track,” she said. “Sustaining people’s participation is going to be difficult. We’re fighting through waves of challenges. People are still burying their loved ones from COVID.
“Have we had people tell our organizers, ‘I didn’t pay this much for gas before Joe Biden was president’? Yes,” she said. “But when we talk to people, they’re also really clear about why they need to continue to participate. And every day it seems like something happens to remind them about the stakes.”