When Joe Biden addressed the nation for the first time as President of the United States, he reminded Americans that their history “has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart”.
Biden, a white septuagenarian whose ascent to the presidency was made possible by overwhelming support from Black voters, has made confronting systematic racism a priority for his administration in hopes of fulfilling a vow he made last June — the day after Trump administration officials ordered the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters — that his presidency would be “an era of action”.
To that end, the Biden administration has leaned into addressing issues of race and identity to an extent that would have been unthinkable under previous presidents, including Barack Obama, under whom Biden served eight years as vice president. For those eight years, Republicans turned the first Black president’s attempts to address race relations and police violence into fodder for racialized attacks that ultimately drove down his approval ratings.
Biden’s forays into the same political minefield have not brought about the same degree of backlash, however: As his first 100 days in office come to a close, he retains an approval rating well above 50 percent. In private conversations, some Republican operatives attribute their party’s inability to land a glove on the president to the fact that he’s an older white man. But in an interview withThe Independent, one of the president’s highest-profile Black advisers was not willing to chalk up the fact that Biden has been able to talk about matters like police reform more easily than Obama to the 46th president’s race alone.
Speaking by phone from his West Wing office last week, former Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond hesitated when pressed on the matter before replying: “I’m not sure.” After a short pause, the 47-year-old Louisianan — now a senior adviser to Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement — conceded that the president’s GOP critics “certainly can’t say he wasn’t born in America, and that he’s not an American citizen,” referring to the discredited “birther” conspiracy theory which Donald Trump used to jump-start his political career.
Asked once more about a statement by a GOP consultant who toldThe Independent that it was harder to attack Biden because the president is “an affable, gentlemanly white man who says nice, positive things most of the time,” Richmond replied: “I think whoever said that has some real issues.”
Offering up his own theory of the case, Richmond, a national co-chair of the Biden 2020 campaign who was instrumental in pushing Biden to reorient his focus on South Carolina’s Black voters following a string of early primary losses, argued that the president and Vice President Kamala Harris have been able to talk about matters like police violence and racism in the justice system without giving oxygen to critics because they’ve tried to “lead by example”.
“Even when people were calling [to] defund the police, he said he’d like to increase funding by $300 million because he thinks there’s a desperate need for real community policing, de-escalation training, and other facets of policing that will make communities and people that police those communities have a better relationship,” he said.
Few serving in the White House understand police reform issue better than Richmond, who is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and an original co-sponsor of what is now the Biden administration’s preferred legislative vehicle for police reform, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
That bill, which among other things would ban law enforcement from using chokeholds and end the blanket immunity from civil lawsuits enjoyed by most police officers, remained bottled up in the GOP-controlled Senate and faced White House opposition under the Trump administration. Now, with Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, the bill has the full support of the Biden administration. According to Richmond, that’s because Biden and Harris “understand the frustration that’s out there”.
“We need real reform. These incidents are not made-up, these incidents are real, they’re captured on TV,” he said. “There’s a real distrust between communities and the police that police them, and a real anger, frustration, and just pure exhaustion in the African American community.”
Though the Biden administration has placed its hopes for police reform in the Justice in Policing Act, even Senate control does not guarantee success thanks to the upper chamber’s filibuster rules. Because that rule effectively requires a 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation under most circumstances, Democrats would have to convince 10 of their GOP counterparts to join with them in favor of the Justice in Policing Act to enact it into law.
Proponents of the Senate filibuster say requiring a supermajority to enact most legislation forces Democrats and Republicans to fashion compromises when addressing controversial issues. But what was once a rarely used maneuver that required a Senator or group of Senators to continuously hold the floor during debate has turned into a veto that any one Senator may exercise by simply sending an email. And while such tactics were at one time deployed against only the most contentious of bills, Republicans began using the filibuster to block most Democratic-backed legislation during Obama’s presidency.
Richmond’s tenure in Congress coincided with an expansion of the GOP’s use of the filibuster meant to deny the first Black president even the smallest of legislative victories. He said Biden’s experience of watching Republicans fight tooth-and-nail to obstruct Obama’s agenda in hopes of making it appear as if his presidency was a failed one made an impression on the then-vice president. That experience, he explained, is why Biden has not hesitated to endorse use of the Senate’s budget reconciliation process to pass infrastructure and tax reform legislation without any Republican votes, even as he continues to express a desire to engage in the sorts of bipartisan compromises that were his stock in trade over nearly four decades representing Delaware.
“[Biden] watched and saw how hard both he and President Obama worked to try to improve people’s lives and make things right. But he also saw the visceral backlash from Republicans who tried to block President Obama on everything he did and criticize him for anything he did,” Richmond said. “We will try to work with them where we can, but at the end of the day, we won’t let them hold up meaningful progress that is important to the American people.”
Yet many parts of the Biden legislative agenda — including the Justice in Policing Act and the Democrats’ election and voting rights package known as the For the People Act — remain subject to the Senate’s filibuster rules. The latter bill, a sweeping elections and ethics measure which election law experts say would be the largest expansion of voting rights in a generation, has taken on new importance for Democrats in light of recent Republican efforts to limit access to voting.
Republicans have expressed near-universal opposition to most of the voting rights bill, with many of them justifying their positions by repeating many of the same lies cited by the pro-Trump insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in hopes of preventing certification of Biden’s win this past January.
When asked how the Biden administration would move the ball forward on voting rights when Republicans largely remain committed to a Trumpian alternative reality, Richmond pointed to Biden’s role in shepherding in a reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to a 98-0 vote in the Senate. That, he said, was evidence that the president can make progress on an issue Republicans have turned into a political litmus test.
That 98-0 vote took place nearly two decades ago in a far less polarized political environment, long before Trump began making the acceptance of outrageous lies about the conduct of elections in America a non-negotiable aspect of Republican dogma. Yet the ex-congressman said the president could help move the ball downfield on voting rights if he continues to “level with the American people… fight disinformation and lead by example,” and suggested that a more targeted piece of legislation focusing on restoring provisions in the Voting Rights Act that were previously invalidated by the Supreme Court could garner more support than HR 1. But he would not elaborate further on how Biden could get such a bill past the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, telling The Independent: “I don’t want to at least now spend a lot of time talking about the process, because everybody knows that making legislation is about making sausage.”
“We don’t have a lot of time to worry about what people say about us — we’re trying to deal with… a pandemic … and an economic crisis — we’re trying to deal with a policing problem in America, we’re trying to deal with breaking down systemic racism,” he said. “So we have our hands full, and what we’ve decided to do is keep our head down and just work.”
But Richmond was far more blunt when pressed further on the subject of combating the disinformation and conspiracy theories that have infected the discourse around voting rights, immigration, and other matters.
One such conspiracy theory — dubbed the “great replacement” — posits that a shadowy cabal of elites want to replace white voters with Black and brown immigrants in order to create a new electorate that will keep Democrats in power indefinitely. Such beliefs were once solely the province of fringe figures and avowed white nationalists; however, they have lately found a receptive audience among more mainstream Republican figures. One popular conservative television personality — Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — has made claims that Democrats’ efforts to make it easier for Americans to vote are part and parcel of a plan to “replace” white voters into a staple of his nightly program.
Asked how the Biden administration could conceivably find common ground on voting rights with a party that embraces such openly racist beliefs, Richmond said the solution is to “educate people on what’s true and what’s not” in the face of concerted efforts to spread disinformation by the GOP. “What Republicans have been able to do for too long is to give people somebody to blame for whatever it is they’re talking about,” he said. “So whether it is rural people who are not happy with whatever is going on, or whether it’s inner city people blaming either Black people or minorities or Asian Americans, we have to fight against that.”
Continuing, Richmond posited that the popularity of Biden administration initiatives will remain high because voters will react well to a positive message and continued transparency: “We’re not going to do it like Republicans… which is to cut funding, stop investing in the American people and their destiny and their future, and blaming other people… We’re going to lift everybody up,” he said. “When you do that, you educate the American public that what they’ve been sold for so long is just a bad bill of goods, and that you actually have a president who is an honest broker telling them the real deal, and that his actions are moving people in the right direction, people are feeling better about themselves and government… Some people are going to be slow to come along, but they’ll come.”
When it comes to the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill Biden signed into law last month and the $2.3 trillion infrastructure and tax plan he unveiled a few weeks ago, Richmond may be correct. According to recent polling, more than 70 percent of Americans approved of the former bill when it was enacted, while the latter has the support of roughly two-thirds of Americans, including seven out of every 10 independents and three in 10 Republicans.
But the news isn’t all good. Although some GOP officials at the state and local levels have expressed support and even enthusiasm for the Biden infrastructure plan, both House and Senate GOP leaders have indicated that it will receive the same obstruction treatment as the Obama administration’s legislative agenda. Having watched Republicans’ attempts to kneecap the last Democratic president from his seat in the House, Richmond had harsh words for those who would deploy similar scorched-earth tactics against the one he now serves as a senior adviser: “That they would use anything they could to tear somebody down, and the fact that they’re just looking to tear… President Biden down is shameful. They’re not doing it on policy reasons. they’re just trying to figure out how to get a leg up for the next election. And I think that that is where we have to draw the line as Americans,” he said.
Continuing, Richmond asked: “You’re going to make things in the country so bad to [the point] where people don’t want to vote to re-elect him, which means you’re going to negatively affect people’s lives for the next political race — instead of all of us joining hands together and wishing success to President Biden’s administration so we can get out of this pandemic, restore the economy, invest in families? … They’re going to sit back and just look for ways to destroy him? I think that’s a sickness, and I think it’s going to hold this country back. So I hope that a majority of them don’t feel that way.”