Friday, March 12, 2021

What Black Voters Saw in Biden That the Rest of Us Missed

On his 50th day in office, President Biden signed the most significant piece of legislation passed in decades  and gave a speech calling for unity to combat the pandemic. As Jamelle Bouie wrote, Biden knew he was onto something long before we did.

Last year, as he steamrolled his way to victory in the Democratic presidential primaries, Joe Biden told CNN that the pandemic was “probably the biggest challenge in modern history, quite frankly.”

“I think it may not dwarf but eclipse what F.D.R faced,” he added.

Biden referred to Franklin Roosevelt again in an interview with Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. “I’m kind of in the position F.D.R was,” he said.

And a week before the election, Biden gave a speech at Roosevelt’s winter White House in Warm Springs, Ga., where he promised to “overcome a devastating virus” and “heal a suffering world.”

In other words, Biden telegraphed his F.D.R.-size ambition throughout the year. And the first major bill of his administration is in fact an F.D.R-size piece of legislation.

While the American Rescue Plan and Biden's speech were significant milestones, they come on the heels of 50 days in which most of us have been pleasantly surprised by what the president has accomplished in such a short time. Not only can we see a glimmer of light at the end of this pandemic's dark tunnel, Biden has set a new course for this country with executive orders and the quality of people he has put forward to lead the federal government. 

I'll admit that, during the 2020 primaries, Joe Biden wasn't my first choice to win the nomination. He was in the middle of the pack of candidates I thought I could live with. But so far, he has vastly exceeded my expectations. Apparently I'm not the only one.

For those of us who watched the 2020 primary closely, it's clear that Biden won the nomination based on the support of African Americans in the south—particularly South Carolina. At the time, there was a lot of chatter about why they would chose an older white man from the most diverse field of candidates in our history. Conventional wisdom was that Rep. Clyburn's endorsement was the critical factor. But I think there was a lot more to it than that. 

Just days before the South Carolina primary, Biden participated in a town hall meeting in Charleston. He fielded a question from Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife was one of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

That is the Joe Biden that African Americans saw—whether it was at that town hall meeting or previously. The reason Biden's words that day were so important had nothing to do with the policies he would promote as president. But what we heard was someone who has faced deep sorrow in his life and was willing to be vulnerable in sharing that with others. It is the root of Joe Biden's empathy. But there's something else we heard. Biden's sense of purpose is also rooted in that sorrow—it explains why he decided to run for president. That moment (and others like it) solidified the trust African Americans felt with Biden. And while a candidate's policy proposals are important, having trust in the person we elect as president is even more important. 

Of course, what Black southerners saw in Biden is the polar opposite of what we had been living with from Donald Trump—a narcissistic sociopath—who was not only cruel, but incapable of doing anything except feed his own ego. In that way, Black voters in the south chose the one candidate who was most likely to offer healing to this country. 

When it began to be clear that Biden would be the Democratic nominee, I made peace with that possibility by recognizing that, of all the candidates, the former vice president was best prepared to start rebuilding the federal government that had been decimated by Trump. In other words, I zeroed in on his experience and competence. That has been on display as he put his team together and is the reason we've seen so may positive achievements in just 50 days. 

But it wasn't until Inauguration Day that I began to see the importance of what Biden displayed during that town hall in South Carolina. I know that hard-core Trump enablers probably can't be reached. But for the rest of us, Biden continually reminds us of what, as Americans, we are capable of being. And after four years of losing hope in those possibilities, we can find healing in that.


  1. Something else black voters saw: Biden was happy to work for and with a black man, and never once tried to pull rank because of whiteness, never once disrespected Obama, never once demonstrated anything other than loyal and heartfelt support for Obama. Biden was, to put it simply, a genuinely good man, and they didn't need to wait until late primary season to see it.

    Contrast with the disrespect that so many others showed Obama, calling him naive, accusing him of corruption, and so on. It did not go unnoticed.

    1. Very interesting point. No question that the black community must sure have missed the first black president after four years of the nasty racist, and Biden's conduct in office had made it easier to hope for him as a third Obama term.

      Indeed, while Nancy has a point, too, I wouldn't overstate it. We keep hearing, after all, that key reason for disappointing results among Latinos is THEIR strong religious affiliation. She could be making the common mistake of projecting from what resonates with her. She draws so much of her politics from her Christianity (which, as you know, can make me uneasy) that it is only natural for her to picture others the same way.

      My only caution is that, Biden's specifics aside, it isn't likely that any Veep will upstage and disrespect the president. That's so both by virtue of the office, which is all but invisible and powerless, and by agreement, based on what's good politics and on a meeting of the minds that led to the VP pick in the first place. Cheney could be the exception that proves the rule. Try to name a VP that didn't fit the mold. So far Harris is not making a lot of headlines, and some have taken such pains to support the president, particularly Humphrey but maybe also Gore, that it did their political career in. Humphrey privately had his doubts about the Vietnam War but ended up associated with it.

    2. Biden accepted the VP post offered to him by Obama.

    3. "My only caution is that, Biden's specifics aside, it isn't likely that any Veep will upstage and disrespect the president."

      When it's a black man, though ... ? It would not be hard for a white VP to signal just a little bit of disrespect or discomfort at working for a black man. Yet you won't find even a hint of it with Biden; what you will instead find is someone whose loyalty appears sincere at every turn.

      It's not common for leading Democratic Senators to show disrespect for a Democratic President either, yet Bernie, Warren, and others had no problem talking smack about Obama. Did racism factor into it? Unless someone comes right out and admits to racist motives, it's usually just guesswork. So I will instead say that they didn't seem to mind alienating black voters by showing Obama disrespect. And for that matter, their form of "progressive" politics was all about putting white people's economic grievances first and matters of racial justice last or not at all, so I feel comfortable saying: if they weren't racist, they were the sort of non-racists who don't really have a problem with racism. Something else a lot of black people picked up on.

  2. Pierce et al. may have underrated Biden because they tend to overrate ideology. If you're on the left, you think ideology is what matters most, and you think centrists are different because they have a different ideology. You think centrists are as committed to their ideology as much as candidates on the left like Sanders or Warren are as committed to theirs.

    But centrists are usually centrists because they are non-ideological. Their agenda is more likely to adapt as the needs of the country changes. Almost all our presidents tend to be "moderate" in this way.

    FDR, the icon of the left, was not an ideologue and not a lefty socialist. He was a practical politician who first campaigned on lower taxes and a balanced budget but made the New Deal happen once elected in response to the desperate times of the Great Depression.

    I am actually not surprised by Biden's presidency. A big, bold, progressive $2 trillion relief package was not what anyone expected to see happen when the campaigns for the 2020 election got under way. But the pandemic and economic hardship demanded bold action. Biden, an experienced and non-ide0logical moderate, got it done. (Credit too to Pelosi and Schumer, who are hardly heroes to the ideological left.)

    I have to say I did underestimate Biden during the campaign. My doubts were not about his ideology but about his ability to wow the electorate (that seemed to be a requirement based on recent Dem presidencies). I was concerned about his age, I have to admit. He might make a fine president but could he get elected? Though I was underwhelmed by Biden the candidate, the more dire the crisis grew, the better Biden looked (and the less important worries about the "enthusiasm" gap would be). The country went for the guy with experience and empathy, whose life was filled with the kind of loss to prepare him for the moment. That's not unlike 1932. When the country was flat on its back, it went for the guy in the wheelchair.

    A lot of people counted Biden out last year, especially after his dismal start in the first few states. I remember one person who kept saying "Wait for South Carolina." You were absolutely right about that, Nancy. Kudos to you.

    1. John, I just don't think that's fair. Biden was underestimated because too many thought that only a lefty could win? Come one. You know perfectly well that Nancy doesn't think that way, and neither do I. I was in fact scared or even appalled that it was coming down to two old white men, one to the left, with little in common other than being old white men and having name recognition. There I actually preferred Biden simply because I was growing unhappy with Sanders, but I underestimated him all the same?

      Why did so many think that way? I hate to rehash that primary campaign, just as I was angry at those who kept rehashing the 2016 one in 2020. But I kept hearing that no one was all that excited about Biden but felt he was "electable." And that seemed to mean that they didn't prefer him but figured that maybe everyone else does. That just did not seem a solid basis for victory. It's just gaming, and any sign of weakness, I reasoned, would puncture that bubble fast.

      Many in the mainstream press, like me, leaped onto his apparent liabilities as a campaigner -- the gaffes, the weak debate performance, the likelihood that future speeches would be no more eloquent, the reluctance in early months to get out there and great people as much as other candidates -- as confirming the vulnerability. And then when early state results were at best disappointing, I and many others wrote him off as ruined.

      What changed? Again, I hate rehashing, but you know this history, too. He started acting more like a winner. Trump's increasingly radical terrorism had more and more looking for that Obama third term. And the unexpected pandemic made a safe candidate that much more appealing. Then the shift to the South and key endorsement changed things. Had the timing been any different, we might well indeed have a different president.

    2. Hi John. I was responding to the Pierce tweet. I've read many others (e.g., David Atkins) with the same sentiment -- Biden is doing better as president than they had expected.

      Why? I may be reading between the lines, but I take them to mean he is much more progressive than than they expected from someone in the "centrist" lane. My comment was about why I think they were wrong about him.

      As I said, Biden had weaknesses as a candidate. Compared to the early part of the campaign, he has been doing surprisingly well since. But I do think his presidential performance is consistent with his candidacy from Super Tuesday on. What changed? Electorally, South Carolina was a turning point. Super Tuesday confirmed he was likely to be the nominee. He looked better-suited for the role he was running for. But there was more to it than that he became a better campaigner.

      In response to the worsening pandemic, Biden broadened his agenda and proposed far more progressive solutions. So for anyone surprised he's become a progressive president, I would say that is how he campaigned starting in the primaries. The turning point in his evolving platform was the realization that the pandemic was a terrible tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

    3. "But centrists are usually centrists because they are non-ideological. Their agenda is more likely to adapt as the needs of the country changes."

      Well said. Very often, a "centrist" is merely a "progressive" who has decided to actually get things done.

      People are surprised that Biden and Pelosi and Schumer have passed such a big relief bill; they shouldn't be. If they're gobsmacked that "centrist" Democrats would pass good legislation given the chance, it simply means they've been drastically misreading the situation for years now.

      I will add that Obama takes a lot of flak that his 2009 stimulus package (the ARRA) wasn't as bold as it could have been. Thing is, this year's stimulus is being passed via reconciliation, and there are very narrow parameters a bill has to meet to qualify; the ARRA did not*, so it had to beat a filibuster. That meant getting at least two Republican supporters, as there were only 56 Democrats and two Independents in the Senate at the time. (Specter and Franken wouldn't give Obama his so-called "filibuster-proof majority" until about five months later.) If Obama had tried to pass ARRA via reconciliation, it would have been even smaller, so would you have preferred THAT you bellyachers? Christ almighty.

      *: One rule for reconciliation bills is that they can't increase the deficit; the ARRA was projected to increase the deficit by $787 billion over a decade, so right there, it wasn't a candidate for reconciliation. Plus there were components where the budgetary impact might have been deemed merely "incidental" to the policies in question**, and if so, those parts would have been stripped out too. (I don't see a whole lot that looks like it would have fallen into that category, but I'm no Parliamentarian, and some of it feels grey area.)

      **: That "merely incidental" part of the Byrd Rule is confusingly written, but it works like this. Measures that are a matter of giving money to people, or taxing them more (or less), are suitable for reconciliation. But measures that are about changing a policy or law that has no DIRECT budget impact -- say, raising the minimum wage*** -- you can't put those in reconciliation. Also, it seems that you can allocate funds for a given existing department, and direct them to spend those funds in a fashion generally in their bailiwick, and that's fine ... but you probably couldn't create a completely new program, for example a public option, even if you tried to run it through the Department of Health and Human Services.

      ***: So much for Bernie's long-standing contention that he could have passed whatever he wanted through reconciliation. Jesus Bernie, you've been in Congress for 30 years now; how can anyone hold a job that long and still not learn anything? It seems like you'd learn a thing or two just by accident, without even trying. If you locked me in an auto plant for 30 years and none of the workers ever talked to me, I'm pretty sure I'd at least figure out what wrenches do sooner or later.

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  4. Earlier this year, Perry Bacon Jr. posted a list of things he got wrong during the Trump years. Like many people, he was confident that Trump had no chance of winning in 2016. One of the lessons he learned was:

    1. Listen more to Black people.

    "... In 2019 and 2020, Black voters I spoke to were often the most confident that Trump could win a second term and therefore felt Democrats should nominate the candidate who would be least offensive to white people (Joe Biden). The lesson here, in my view, is that Black people may understand the sensibilities of white people, particularly on racial issues, better than white people do themselves."

    "What The Trump Era Taught Me About Covering Politics"

    Also, I think the primary debates were a disaster. Outsourcing them to the cable TV networks was a big mistakes. The format was something like a reality TV show called "In Search Of The Zinger That Will Make Me President!" With so many candidates on the stage, everyone was fighting for attention and everyone came armed with pre-packaged zingers. Joe, on the other hand, just stood there, apparently bemused by the spectacle. Many thought that demonstrated that Joe was out of touch with the times, but to the contrary, it demonstrated that Joe was astute enough not debase himself by joining in the food fight.

    I really hope we never use the 2020 primary debate format again.

    ETA: The comment system really needs an edit function.

    1. Yes, edit function. I way to like other comments, such as your perceptive ones, would be nice, too. But I so wish it'd remember us if we comment again before leaving the blog. This image recognition is driving me crazy. And now I'm about to encounter it again for the third time in 5 minutes!

  5. Thank you so very much for this post..,despite the assault on blk folks ...I know that we will prevail....because ..WE Have To...


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