President Biden was thrown a lifeline this week with a chance to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, giving him a chance to make up for a string of unfulfilled promises on the racial justice front.
“This is an opportune moment for the president,” said Nina Turner, a member of the Democratic National Committee and liberal progressive activist. “This is an opportunity for the president to show that he gets the needs of the hour and especially when it comes to criminal justice reform, the opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice who understands the liberation struggle, the contours of what justice really means.”
Mr. Biden’s approval rating is at 41%. Among Black voters, his approval rating has slid to 60% after coming in at 67% in September and 87% in July.
He has tried to deliver change through the Justice Department, which has banned chokeholds, restricted no-knock warrants, stopped using private prisons and opened investigations into police misconduct in four cities.
The Justice Department also ruled some federal inmates released to home confinement in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus could stay out of prison.
The White House has had little wiggle room in Congress with scant Republican support and rifts among Democrats despite a legislative wishlist that animates liberal activists.
Yvette Simpson, chief executive officer of the progressive group Democracy for America, said the left felt as if Mr. Biden wasted a lot of time trying to reach a bipartisan consensus with Republicans, and said the court opening provides him with a chance to do something he has failed to do on other occasions: fulfill a promise.
“It gets him major wins among the Black Democratic establishment, the elite and Black female activist organizations,” she said. “I think the folks on the ground, the people who are still being deeply impacted by the pandemic, I don’t know if this moves them at all. They still think the system is broken.”
That level of disillusionment with the Biden administration grew in September after Senate negotiations collapsed for a sweeping overhaul of national policing policies. The bill was named after George Floyd.
Lawmakers failed to find common ground on, among other things, restrictions on the use of force, the creation of a national database to track police misconduct and stripping police of qualified immunity, the legal principle that shields public officials from being sued for their actions in the line of duty.
Mr. Biden faced another embarrassing setback earlier this month after he failed to convince Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia to join the rest of the Democratic conference in voting to scrap the legislative filibuster, allowing them to pass sweeping changes to federal election laws in a party-line vote.
Democrats said the changes are necessary to counter laws enacted in GOP-led state legislatures such as voter ID laws for polling places and mail-in ballots, which Mr. Biden said were intended to disenfranchise Black voters.
Mr. Biden traveled to Atlanta this month and delivered a fiery speech in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the legislation.
Activists said it was too little, too late.
With no clear path forward on either front, speculation swirled around whether Mr. Biden would be able to deliver on any more of his high-profile campaign promises before the midterm elections, which historically have been tough on the president’s party.
Opportunity knocked with the news of Mr. Breyer’s impending exit.
Mr. Biden on Thursday formally announced Mr. Breyer’s retirement, praising the liberal justice, and vowing to follow through on his pledge to nominate a Black woman to replace him.
“I’ve made no decision except one: The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character experience and integrity,” Mr. Biden said at The White House. “And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue in my view. I made that commitment during my campaign for president, and I will keep that commitment.”
Knowing their fragile majority is under threat in the November election, Senate Democrats have vowed a swift confirmation process to ensure Mr. Biden can get his successor through while they still control the upper chamber.
With the 100-member Senate evenly split between the parties, Democrats retain control only because of Ms. Harris’ tie-breaking vote as the presiding officer in the chamber.
Democrats in that scenario would need all 50 members of their conference to stick together, giving Ms. Harris the chance to break the tie if Republicans are unified in opposition.
Ms. Simpson said moving forward, Mr. Biden should do more to engage with community organizers and activists outside the Washington beltway who have been fighting for years in the trenches for criminal justice and electoral changes.
“You are still the leader of the free world the last time we checked,” Ms. Simpson said.
“You can’t just ride this wave,” she said “You have to pass the George Floyd bill and voting rights. It is not an either-or proposition, it is a both-and.”