WASHINGTON (AP) — On restoring abortion access, President Joe Biden says his hands are tied with no more Democratic senators. Declaring a public health emergency over the issue has drawbacks, his aides say. And when it comes to gun violence, Biden has been clear about the limits of what he can do on his own.
“There is a Constitution” Biden said from the South Lawn in late May. “I can’t dictate that stuff.”
Throughout this century, presidents have often lobbied aggressively to expand the limits of executive power. Biden talks more about his limitations.
When it comes to the thorniest issues facing his administration, Biden and his White House’s instinct is often to talk about what he can’t do, citing court-imposed restraints or insufficient support. in a Congress controlled by its own party – albeit barely.
He injects a strong dose of reality by addressing an increasingly restive Democratic base, which has demanded action on issues such as abortion and voting rights ahead of the November election.
White House officials and the president’s allies say that approach characterizes a leader who has always promised to be honest with Americans, including about the true extent of his powers.
But Biden’s realpolitik leanings clash with an activist base pushing for a more aggressive party leader — both in tone and substance. Although candidate Biden has sold himself as the person who knows Washington’s ways best, he is nonetheless crippled by the same obstacles that plagued his predecessors.
“I think if you hesitate to take important steps like this just because of a legal challenge, you won’t do anything,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, who has pushed for more administrative action on abortion. “People across the country expect us leaders to do something.
Biden’s cautious approach could be to hedge if the White House fails — as Democrats did by negotiating a party-line spending package centered on the social safety net and climate provisions. That high-profile effort has been routinely thwarted due to resistance from two moderate Democrats, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who on Thursday scuttled a scaled-down climate and tax-focused effort for the time being.
This development prompted Democratic senators to call on Biden to unilaterally declare a climate emergency. In a statement Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Biden pledged to take “strong executive action to respond to this moment” on the climate. But in recent weeks, this gap between “Yes we can” and “no, we can’t” was most blatant on abortion.
Since the Supreme Court last month overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade of 1973 with its constitutional protections for abortion, the White House came under considerable pressure to try to maintain access to abortion in conservative states that are on the verge of banning the procedure.
For example, advocates implored Biden to consider establishing abortion clinics on federal lands. They asked the administration to help transport women seeking abortions to a state that offers the procedure. And Democratic lawmakers are pressuring the White House to declare a public health emergency.
Without dismissing the ideas outright, White House aides expressed skepticism about such demands. And even as he signed an executive order last week to begin addressing the issue, Biden had a clear and consistent message: that he couldn’t do it alone, drawing attention to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The only way to ensure a woman’s right to choose and the balance that existed is for Congress to reinstate the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law,” Biden said shortly after that the court struck down Roe. “No executive action by the president can do that.”
Shortly after saying the filibuster — a Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most laws to move forward — shouldn’t apply to abortion and privacy measures, Biden acknowledged during of a meeting with Democratic governors that his new stance wouldn’t make any difference, at least not right away.
“The filibuster shouldn’t stop us from doing that,” Biden said he wrote Roe’s protections into federal law. “But right now, we don’t have the votes in the Senate to change the filibuster.”
Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, is an institutionalist at heart and has tried to operate under the constraints of those institutions — unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who repeatedly pushed the limits of executive power.
But some advocates don’t want to hear Biden talk about what he can’t do.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the group We Testify, which advocates for women who have had abortions, said the administration should proceed with a public health emergency even if it is ultimately blocked by the courts.
“It tells these people who need abortions that the president is trying to help them, and what’s stopping him is the court, not himself, or his own projections of what could possibly happen.” , she said, later adding: “The fact that he’s an institutionalist and he can’t look around and see that the institutions around him are collapsing is the problem.”
Democratic lawmakers have also continued to incite senior administration officials behind the scenes. In a virtual meeting last week, Chu urged Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, to ask the administration to declare a public health emergency. Proponents of the idea say it would unlock certain powers and resources not only to expand access to abortion, but also to protect the doctors who provide it.
Although Becerra did not rule out the idea, he told Chu and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that the administration had two main questions: How would the administration replenish the money for the fund? public health emergency and what would this decision actually accomplish?
Skepticism has not deterred Democratic lawmakers. But some of the staunchest supporters of expansive executive action on abortion have also warned their constituents and activists to be realistic.
“It is unrealistic to think that they have the power and authority to protect access to abortion services in all parts of the country because of what the Supreme Court has done,” said Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.
In a sense, the recent success on guns was a validation of Biden’s art of the possible approach, supporters say. Rather than promising what he can’t deliver, Biden instead spoke about his limitations and warned that any substantive change would require the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans — a goal that initially seemed implausible.
It culminated last week with a ceremony marking the signing of the first substantial gun restrictions in about three decades.
“I think the president has struck the right balance,” he added. said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Concerns about limitations on Biden’s executive powers are not mere speculation. His administration’s efforts to tame the coronavirus pandemic, for example, have been repeatedly thwarted by the courts, including a requirement to wear masks on public transit and a vaccination mandate for businesses across the country. less than 100 workers.
Then-President Barack Obama issued similar warnings when he was confronted by immigration activists urging him to use his power to grant reprieves of deportation to millions of young immigrants who do not had no legal status in the United States.
In 2012, Obama unilaterally signed into law the Deferred Action Agenda for Childhood Arrivals, which is still in effect today. Two years later, Obama embraced the pen-and-phone strategy more fully, signaling to Congress that he would not hesitate to use executive orders if lawmakers continued to jeopardize his national agenda.
“Nobody thinks he has a magic wand here. People understand that there are limits,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder and co-executive director of the Indivisible Project. “What they want to see is that he treats this like the crisis it is for people in red states who are losing access to abortion.”