President Biden is spending Thursday in Georgia, the symbolic center of the voting rights debate, hours after making an impassioned call for reforming and sustaining democracy the finale for his first address to Congress.
The main reason for the trip is to pitch his ambitious $4 trillion plans to refashion the economy, rebuild its physical underpinnings and expand the government's social services system. But he's also visiting Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency on a promise to revive democratic norms after Watergate, and holding a rally in a place that's long been central to the voting rights fight.
"We have to prove democracy still works," Biden said at the wrapped up his nationally televised speech Wednesday night. He urged quick passage of the sweeping remake of federal election, campaign finance and government ethics rules known as HR 1 along with separate legislation to revive federal oversight in places with histories of voter suppression.
"Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can't," the president told the lawmakers. "We have to prove them wrong."
His words underscored a fundamental change in where the government's systemic dysfunctions rate on the roster of national challenges. When Biden started running for president three years ago, neither he nor any of the other top-tier candidates spent much time talking about the threats to the nation's well-being posed by that polarized partisanship and distrust in governance. A pandemic that threatened the nation's ability to hold an election, a president fermenting conspiracy theories about massive vote fraud and a violent insurrection at the Capitol have now prompted the new president to proclaim the survivability of democracy an "existential crisis."
Restoring faith in the system, he said, would be aided the most by a season of legislative productivity — a convenient truism, to be sure, given that would result in Biden's sprawling plans for expanded government getting through a narrowly Democratic Congress where almost every Republican opposes almost everything he's asking for. To overcome that resistance, Biden also appealed to every American's sense of responsibility to enhance democracy with civic engagement — confident that many more GOP-leaning voters than GOP lawmakers support his agenda.
The president also made an explicit appeal for enactment of a remade Voting Rights Act, which seeks to combat racial discrimination in election systems, and what sponsors call the For the People Act, which would set federal standards for registration, early voting and absentee ballot access that could not be undercut by the wave of more restrictive legislation now moving through Republican-run state legislatures across the country.
"More people voted in the last presidential election than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic ever," Biden said. " It should be celebrated. Instead, it's being attacked."
The comprehensive bill to countermand that attack has passed the House and will soon move through committee in the Senate. But after that the measure has no future unless it's scaled back dramatically, which most major democracy reform groups ardently oppose, or it becomes the vehicle for an unprecedented weakening of the legislative filibuster — which for now means the Republicans can stop the bill in its tracks. The showdown now looks likely in July or August.
The voting rights legislation, named for the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, has not started to move but is on a similar trajectory as HR 1: smooth sailing through the House but dead-on-arrival in the Senate while the filibuster remains.
In a signal that Biden has elevated the issue near the top of his agenda, a voting rights campaign will soon be unveiled by Building Back Together, a nonprofit advocacy group recently created by the president's allies to promote his to-do list. The group will lobby for the two pieces of legislation in Congress while also working to overcome — or thwart the enactment of — restrictive GOP legislation in nine states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
Biden was the first Democrat to carry Georgia in 28 years, in part because he ran up significant margins in such fast-growing and racially diverse places as Gwinnett County, suburbs northeast of Atlanta where the legacies of the Jim Crow past still resound. That is where Thursday evening's drive-in rally will take place.
That will be preceded by his visit to the Carter home in Plains. Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter back in 1976. Now 96, he is the longest-living former president but remains vocal on many issues, most recently deriding the newly restrictive voting law of his home state. Biden has called the measure written by the Republican General Assembly a "sick" and "un-American" response to former President Donald Trump's fact-free allegations of massive election cheating last year.
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