Nonsense from people who should know better made my blood boil – they didn’t like the news about Alito’s abortion draft and immediately assumed Biden should have done something about it. This isn’t Putin’s Russia and there isn’t a Biden button for every ill. What should or could Biden have done? No clue. But blame Biden – he’s a convenient target and Republicans would much rather you blame him than them – it’s their talking point.
How about blaming Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for refusing to support repeal of the filibuster to protect women’s rights, pass Voting Rights legislation or most of Biden’s agenda? How about blaming the fifty Republican Senators who bound themselves to fight each and every thing Biden tries to do lest he get any credit? Republicans want you to blame Biden for their own misbehavior. If we accept that nonsense we deserve the results.
Sometimes presidents can shape issues so that legislators have little choice. But on nationally polarized issues like abortion, that’s almost impossible. And on issues of partisan advantage like voting rights there are strong pressures on recalcitrant legislators to vote their personal interest. It’s not clear the president has anything to offer them. On less polarized issues a few legislators may be moved by bribes, programs or judgships he can offer them? A Judge appointed by President John Kennedy called me to ask if I’d like to know why he hadn’t decided a case? Any decision had to favor my clients. But he didn’t want Missouri to have to pay or my clients to benefit. I hope Kennedy got a LOT for appointing Meredith. Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson made clear that LBJ also used a lot of blackmail. How far should a president go? On which issues? Should Biden nominate another Alito or Kavanaugh in the hope of a Republican vote?
I believe Joe Biden is doing the best he can under the political circumstances, and so was President Obama. A president can’t do whatever he or she wants without strong political backing.
President Kennedy feared and opposed the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. But after he was assassinated, President Johnson and Martin Luther King worked together for civil rights legislation. Johnson made clear that King had to organize and push Congress, push Johnson, push the Senate and the House, to pass the legislation they wanted. Getting the legislation over the top required strong public support. Johnson could take care of the legislative politics if he got King’s help building the national momentum for the bills that resulted in the major legislative accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movements – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Getting cynical is not an effective strategy to get done what we want government to do. The public role didn’t and doesn’t end on a single election day. Some of the best minds in America are focused on trying to bring about that public support. Picking up our phones, writing letters, meeting with our representatives, signing petitions, and, especially in this context, supporting and campaigning for good candidates across the country are all parts of our political job. The last thing we should do is let political trouble-makers cast blame on President Biden or anyone else for their own misdeeds.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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