Biden, a reluctant culture warrior, may see court's abortion ruling define his presidency

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After declaring himself a "bridge" to the next generation of Democratic leaders, President Biden took office 15 months ago vowing to focus on getting the pandemic under control, stabilizing the economy and restoring a sense of order and calm following his predecessor's four frenetic, polarizing years.

But as Biden has discovered, there is no such thing as a caretaker president.

While Biden's FDR-size ambitions to enlarge the social safety net and enact a sweeping program to combat climate change have stalled, his presidency is being battered by external events: the biggest land war in Europe since World War II and, now, the Supreme Court's apparent decision to strike down Roe vs. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of abortion as a federally protected right.

"It's one more tempest among many. And it's another instance where he is surrounded by the cultural issues that have never been his preference," said David Axelrod, a former counselor to President Obama. "You can plan for all kinds of things, but you also have to plan on the unexpected."

Biden, elected in 2020 thanks largely to his experience and a belief that he could quell the country's culture wars, presides over a nation girding for a historic judicial ruling that's certain to further inflame already stark political divisions.

The 79-year-old's presidency may be defined over the next several months by his ability to navigate fast-shifting political currents — to rally voters in response to the biggest Supreme Court decision in decades without appearing to take his eye off the pocketbook issues that most Americans rank as their top priority.

"No president ever has the presidency they wished for, and very few of them get to have the presidency they campaigned on," said Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's graduate school of political management.

She pointed to George W. Bush, who campaigned on education policy and domestic issues before the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, reshaped his legacy as a wartime president. Similarly, Barack Obama, elected in part on a promise to end Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, took office tasked with pulling the country out of economic ruin amid the 2008 financial crisis.

Biden has been bogged down by a persistent pandemic and the resulting economic shockwaves, which have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Then came the publication Monday night of a draft Supreme Court opinion that, if adopted by five justices, will strike down Roe vs. Wade. Such a decision would deliver a cataclysmic shock to the American body politic and potentially spark a backlash, further civil unrest and a deeper reordering of the lives of millions.

Biden on Tuesday told reporters that such an opinion would mark a "fundamental shift" in U.S. law and could throw a "whole range of rights" related to privacy into question.

"If this decision holds, it's really quite a radical decision," he said. The final ruling is expected to be issued in the next two months.

Given that the court is controlled by its six conservatives, the prospect of rescinding abortion rights and returning the decision to the states would not come as a surprise. But with a significant majority of Americans opposing a rollback of Roe, outrage over the ruling could amount to a political earthquake.

"This is not about certain regulations around the fringe that voters may have a hard time understanding. This strikes at the core of rights of Americans," said Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster who remains close to the White House. "This could be game-changing in the midterm elections, and changing what happens in the midterms could have a profound effect on how people view the Biden presidency."

In the short term, Biden and Democrats intend to seize on the likely overturning of Roe to galvanize voters ahead of November. They are desperate to motivate a base that has been disappointed by the president's inability to get much of his agenda through a narrowly divided Congress and to appeal to swing voters, given that 70% of Americans support maintaining abortion rights, according to a recent CNN poll.

"If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose. And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November," Biden said in a statement, noting that Democrats don't currently have the power to codify abortion rights. "At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe, which I will work to pass and sign into law."

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday that he intends to force a vote on legislation to codify Roe, despite the fact that he lacks the votes to pass it.

"This is not an abstract exercise. This is urgent," Schumer tweeted. "Every American is going to see which side every senator stands on."

But most Republicans have made no secret of their opposition to Roe, and some voters could view the failure of a purely symbolic Senate vote as another illustration of a Democratic majority's impotence.

Moreover, Biden's ability to rally his party on the issue ahead of the midterms is no sure thing. His history on the issue of abortion is complicated. Though a devout Catholic, Biden has long supported abortion rights. His reticence to weigh in over the last year as several states have restricted abortion rights — to say nothing of his reluctance to use the word "abortion" — has frustrated activists. His restrained response Tuesday to the possible overturning of Roe only furthered their concerns.

"A gauntlet has been dropped by the Court. Biden may not be able to undo what they did, but he can lead a political movement to protect Roe v. Wade," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston.

Brinkley said Biden's powerlessness to prevent the Court's overturning of Roe, as well as his failure to enact his sweeping domestic agenda or address inflation, puts him in a "tenuous" position politically and could further demoralize voters.

"It looks like Roe v. Wade is unraveling on his watch," Brinkley said.

Doug Sosnik, former senior political adviser to Bill Clinton, said it'll be difficult for Democrats to overcome the historical headwinds they face in November. He pointed out that the party of the sitting president has lost one branch of Congress in the last four midterm elections.

The high court's ruling, if it hews closely to the draft, could prove to be politically beneficial for Biden and Democrats in the 2024 campaign. By then, Sosnik said, the impacts of the court's actions will affect the lives of more voters, providing Biden with a further opening to sharpen his political narrative.

Sosnik added that the Clinton administration used the 1994 midterms, when Democrats suffered an electoral shellacking, to retool their message to reflect public sentiment and clarify the story of their accomplishments.

"I think the longer presidents are in office, they learn to appreciate the power of the office — the bully pulpit of the office — and that helps define the mission, the administration and what he's doing," Sosnik said.

Democrats, who have been far more eager than Republicans to weigh in on the draft opinion, are certain to emphasize the importance of retaining their Senate majority to confirm Supreme Court nominees should a second vacancy arise before the end of Biden's term. They'll also underscore the importance of controlling governorships and state legislatures, which have the authority to enact and implement abortion laws.

Lake, the pollster, said the impending ruling could help Biden and Democrats in another way: serving as a glaring reminder of the legacy of former President Trump. He appointed three of the high court's conservative judges who signed on to the draft opinion.

"This just gave major clarity in the choice for 2022 and even 2024," she said. "I think the phase that we're entering is the phase where you needed to lay out the choice, and that just got much clearer."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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