As Biden Runs for Re-election, Black Voters’ Frustration Bubbles
President Biden began his re-election campaign this week vowing to “finish the job” he started in 2021. No one wants him to do that more than Black voters.
Long the most loyal Democratic constituency, Black voters resurrected Mr. Biden’s struggling presidential campaign in South Carolina and sent him to the White House with his party in control of the Senate after two runoff victories in Georgia. In return, they hoped the administration would go beyond past presidents in trying to improve their communities — and they listened closely to his promises to do so.
Yet some of Black voters’ biggest policy priorities — stronger federal protections against restrictive voting laws, student loan debt relief and criminal justice and police accountability measures — have failed or stalled, some because of Republican opposition and some because Democrats have declined to bypass the Senate’s filibuster rules. Those disappointments, highlighted in interviews with more than three dozen Black voters, organizers and elected officials in recent weeks, leave open the question of just how enthusiastic Democrats’ most important group of voters will be in 2024.
The interviews point to an emerging split between Black elected officials — who are nearly uniform in praising Mr. Biden and predicting robust Black turnout for him next year — and voters, who are less sure.
“Folks are just tired of being tired,” said Travis Williams, a Democratic organizer in Dorchester County, S.C. “They’re just sick and tired of being tired and disappointed whenever our issues are never addressed.”
Marvin Dutton, 38, an entrepreneur who moved to Atlanta in 2020 from Philadelphia, suggested that Mr. Biden needed to be “a little bit more sincere,” rather than “pandering to us when it’s time to vote.”
Mr. Biden’s re-election bid and his renewed pledge to achieve his first-term policy goals have forced some reflection and frustration among Black voters in battleground states. Many believe that the big promises he made to Black communities have fallen flat.
Democrats can feel confident that if Mr. Biden is his party’s nominee, as expected, a vast majority of Black voters will choose him over a Republican. But the question for the party is whether Democratic voters will bring the same level of energy that led to Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory.
In his campaign announcement, Mr. Biden made no secret of the importance of Black voters to his re-election. The Biden allies with the most airtime in his three-minute video, aside from his wife, were Vice President Kamala Harris, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“I have not found a lack of enthusiasm,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who was Mr. Biden’s most important Black surrogate in 2020. “I just haven’t found it. And people keep saying it. But it’s not there.”
On Friday, Mr. Clyburn’s annual fish fry, which brings together candidates and hundreds of South Carolina Democrats, offered an early look at that enthusiasm. The state party is preparing to hold its presidential primary first in the nominating process — a move Mr. Biden and Democrats said was made to give Black voters more influence.
Mr. Biden’s allies maintain that his administration has delivered for Black voters but that he has failed to trumpet some of his progress. Since taking office, he has provided billions of dollars for historically Black colleges and universities, and he has appointed more Black judges, including Justice Jackson, to the federal bench than any other president. Black unemployment is at a record low. The economy, a top concern for Black voters, has recovered from its pandemic doldrums, though inflation, which spiked last summer, remains higher on a sustained basis than it has been for decades.
“The president and vice president have made issues Black Americans care most about a priority and are running to finish the job,” said Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign. “The campaign will work hard to earn every vote and expand on its winning 2020 coalition.”
But there is evidence of a drop-off in Black voter engagement during the 2022 midterm election, although the results were broadly seen as heartening for Mr. Biden and his party, despite Republicans winning the House.
The share of Black voters in the electorate dropped by 1 percent nationally from 2018 to 2022, the biggest drop of any racial group measured, while the share of white, college-educated voters increased, according to data from HIT Strategies, a Democratic polling firm.
It does not take much of a decrease in Black voters to alter the outcome of elections in the most competitive states. In 2020, Mr. Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin, each by fewer than 35,000 votes.
The number of ballots cast for Democratic Senate candidates by voters in Milwaukee — home to a large majority of Wisconsin’s Black population — dropped by 18 percent from 2018 to 2022, while the statewide turnout remained the same, according to Wisconsin voter data. Had Milwaukee delivered the same margin for Democrats in 2022 that it did in 2018, Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, would have defeated Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican.
The city’s mayor, Cavalier Johnson, attributed the difference in part to Republican efforts in Wisconsin to make voting harder — particularly after Mr. Biden’s narrow victory there in 2020.
Mr. Johnson cited an array of Mr. Biden’s accomplishments for Black voters: He appointed the first Black woman, Justice Jackson, to the Supreme Court. He has emphasized the creation of manufacturing jobs, which were once the heartbeat of Milwaukee but have been moved overseas. And, Mr. Johnson added, Black voters credit Mr. Biden for trying to make voting laws less restrictive, even if his efforts failed.
“They know that Joe Biden stood in the breach and stood up for them and fought to build the economy that’s beneficial for people of color, namely African Americans, and also fought against some of the hate and discrimination against people of color and African Americans,” Mr. Johnson said.
Some Black voters said in interviews that their frustrations with the pace of change promised by Mr. Biden in 2020 had led them to question whether they would support him again, or perhaps sit out the next election.
Jennifer Roberts, 35, is a lifelong Democrat and was one of the Black Georgians who helped elect Mr. Biden and Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. She was confident in 2020 that Ms. Harris, the first woman of color to become vice president, would use her background to advance policies related to women of color, and “was praying for them to win.”
Three years later, Ms. Roberts’s view of Mr. Biden’s promises has changed. Her mother moved in with her because of rising rent costs in Metro Atlanta. Inflation has put an added strain on the tow-truck business she and her husband own.
Ms. Roberts now says she would support former President Donald J. Trump if he were the Republican nominee next year. What she wants, and has not yet received, is “tangible help” — and she believes Mr. Trump’s economic policies could possibly provide it.
“I understand he’s tried,” she said of Mr. Biden. “When you don’t address the things directly, when they don’t go according to what you said publicly they were going to, you can’t just kind of sweep it under the rug.”
In Philadelphia, Lamont Wilson, 45, an information technology manager, voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but said he was not inspired by any 2024 candidates so far. He said Mr. Biden had “done a lot of good” but had not fulfilled his expectations.
Mr. Wilson said he hoped Mr. Biden would “hold firm” on his promise to eliminate student debt — the president announced a $400 billion plan to forgive up to $20,000 of debt for certain people, though the Supreme Court may block it. Black college graduates carry an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates, according to the Education Department.
“Get rid of that debt and give people a chance,” Mr. Wilson said.
Nocola Hemphill, an activist and state party delegate in Winnsboro, S.C., said she had also heard grumblings from Black voters about Mr. Biden. But she saw this as a form of accountability, not evidence of a deeper problem.
“Everyone is not happy with the administration,” she said. “And it’s not that we don’t want to see Biden run. We just want to make sure that he’s going to deliver on his promises.”
Younger, first-time Black voters such as Evan Spann, 19, a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta, are also hoping Mr. Biden will deliver. Mr. Spann said he wanted to hear concrete plans from Mr. Biden for his second term.
“I think what he needs to do is directly say what he’s going to do,” Mr. Spann said. “And then I think he needs to really show up and talk to us about it.”
Mr. Biden’s proponents say that while some Black voters may be frustrated with the party, Democrats remain a safer choice than Republicans, who have opposed the legislation protecting voting rights and cutting student loan debt that Black lawmakers and voters have championed. In several G.O.P.-controlled state legislatures, lawmakers have sought to cut Black history lessons from school curriculums, outlaw books by Black authors and have drawn congressional maps that curb Black voting power.
Democrats plan to underline the G.O.P.’s record on these issues.
“Black voters understand all that,” Mr. Clyburn said. “And we’re going to spend a lot of time this year and next reminding them of who is doing this.” At the same time, Democrats must win over voters who are reluctant to support the party again.
“It’s a difficult conversation to go back into those communities and explain why we didn’t get criminal justice reform,” said Kevin Harris, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It’s a difficult conversation to go into those communities and talk about why we didn’t get the protections that we need with voting rights.”
He continued: “That’s a hard conversation to have. But you still go have it.”
Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Philadelphia.