Before President Biden entered the White House, he had an impressive list of to-dos on his agenda, including but not limited to: passing federal voting rights legislation, restructuring policing following the murder of George Floyd and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But these three agenda items have another thing in common: None have passed Congress yet.
Today, Democrats (again) attempted to pass a compromise version of a voting rights bill, and Republicans rejected it (again). Police reform met a similar fate in September. And earlier that month, Democrats faced another setback after the Senate parliamentarian excluded a pathway for citizenship for immigrants from the upcoming reconciliation bill.
Of course, in a highly polarized Congress, it was always likely that not all of Biden’s priorities would pass. But the current failure of these three measures in particular — all of which disproportionately affect people of color — poses a real problem for the Biden administration, especially given that part of his political strategy has been to pass popular legislation. It raises the question: popular for whom?
All three of these bills that failed Congress are at least somewhat popular with American voters, but they’re also the Democrats’ agenda items that most explicitly tackle race. As such, their fate hangs in limbo, in part, because some Democrats — including Biden — have long struggled to meaningfully address race-related issues for fear of alienating white voters. Some reporting already suggests that Black voters in Georgia aren’t pleased with Biden’s presidency, and because polls show his approval rating slipping among key Democratic constituencies, Democrats face a big risk if they don’t deliver on promises they made, particularly those to voters of color.
For one, we’re already seeing the effects of Biden’s and Congress’s inaction on certain reforms. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that Biden’s favorability has already dropped with most voting blocs — including Democrats. Among Democrats and those who lean Democratic, Biden’s approval rating fell from 88 percent in July to 75 percent in September. And among Black and Hispanic Americans, there was a steeper decline. Eighty-five percent of Black adults approved of Biden in July, but this fell to only 67 percent by September; during the same timeframe, Biden’s numbers among Hispanic adults tumbled from 72 percent to 56 percent. His support among Asian Americans also dropped from 68 percent to 54 percent.
Other polls show a similar decline among voters of color. Per an October Morning Consult survey, Biden’s net approval rating among Black voters slipped from 68 percent on Aug. 1 to 43 percent by Oct. 12. And among Hispanic voters, whom Biden was already struggling with, an early October poll from The Economist/YouGov found that a narrow majority (51 percent) saw the president in a favorable light.
To be clear, we don’t know why voters of color and Democrats writ large have begun to see Biden less favorably. His approval numbers began slipping before September, in part because of the spread of the highly contagious delta variant and because of his administration’s handling of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Other surveys note that Biden’s federal vaccine mandate didn’t go over too well with unvaccinated Black voters, either. But it’s notable that the policies that are now slipping through the cracks are the ones that will have the most obvious impact on people of color, who lean Democratic and have been a reliable source of support for Biden. It’s also too early to know whether voters of color will negatively judge Biden for cutting tuition-free community college from Democrats’ reconciliation bill, but Pew found that making tuition at public colleges and universities free was overwhelmingly popular with Black (86 percent), Hispanic (82 percent) and Asian American (69 percent) voters.
Democrats will blame Republican obstructionism for why legislation on voting rights, immigration and police reform have failed so far. And of course, there is disagreement among Democrats — namely, moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — on how much of Biden’s agenda should pass, including whether to abolish or alter the filibuster so that Democrats can pass more of their priorities. But because Democrats control the White House and Congress, it might be hard for them to persuade voters, particularly voters of color, that the president has done everything in his power to deliver meaningful change since getting into office — a point that Cleve R. Wootson Jr. of The Washington Post argued earlier this month.
On voting rights specifically, there’s a clear racial divide on its importance. According to a July report from Pew, Black (77 percent), Hispanic (63 percent) and Asian Americans (66 percent) were all far more likely than white Americans (51 percent) to label voting a fundamental right rather than a privilege with responsibilities. In June, a separate Morning Consult/Politico poll found that Black Americans (64 percent) were significantly more likely than Hispanic and white Americans (47 percent each) to think restricting voting access was a major threat to American democracy.
Ultimately, the Biden administration’s current failure to pass bills that would help people of color isn’t that surprising, since Democrats have long struggled on how best to address race and racism. But ignoring these issues — or letting them fail completely — could have negative impacts on Democrats in the near- and long-term future. As Wootson Jr. notes, and as we’ve written previously, some voters of color already feel taken for granted by the Biden administration, and further policy failures might give voters of color yet another reason not to turn out for Democrats in the future.