When the New York Democratic congressman Mondaire Jones, a freshman, was at the White House last week for the signing of the proclamation making Juneteenth a national holiday, he told Joe Biden their party needed him more involved in passing voting legislation on Capitol Hill.
Biden “just sort of stared at me”, Jones said of the US president’s response, describing an “awkward silence” that passed between the two.
Jones and a growing number of Democratic activists are becoming more vociferous about what they portray as a lackluster engagement from Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris on an issue they consider paramount, as Republican-led state legislatures pass local laws that will lead to restricted voting for many.
The White House has characterized the issue as “the fight of his presidency”.
But as Democrats’ massive election legislation, the For the People Act, was blocked by Republicans on Tuesday, progressives argued Biden could not much longer avoid the battle over Senate filibuster rules that allow a minority – in this case the Republicans – to block such bills.
And questioning whether he was using all of his leverage to prioritize it suggested risk of a first major public rift with his party’s progressive wing if a breakthrough is not found soon.
“President Obama, for his part, has been doing more to salvage our ailing democracy than the current president of the United States of America,” Jones said, referring to a recent interview in which the former president pushed for a compromise version of the voting rights legislation put forward by conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Jones tweeted on Monday: “Our democracy is in crisis and we need @Potus [the president of the United States] to act like it” with reference to activists complaining that Biden was not holding public events to lobby for the voting rights bill.
Biden met with Manchin at the White House, and Manchin at the last minute declared support for the bill’s advance in the Senate on Tuesday, before the Republicans used the filibuster to kill it. But Biden did not meet with Republicans on the issue.
The White House argues that both Biden and Harris have been in frequent touch with Democratic leadership and key advocacy groups. Biden spoke out forcefully at times, declaring a new Georgia law backed by Republicans an “atrocity” and using a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to say he was going to “fight like heck” for Democrats’ federal answer, but he left negotiations on the proposal to congressional leaders.
On Tuesday the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden was “absolutely revolted” by Republicans’ efforts to suppress access to the ballot box in ways that have greater chilling effects on Democratic voters.
Biden tasked Harris with taking the lead on the voting rights issue, and she spent last week largely engaged in private meetings with voting rights advocates as she traveled for a vaccination tour around the nation.
But commentary in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday remarked at “how little we saw of her” publicly lobbying for the legislation.
Biden and Harris’s efforts haven’t appeased some activists and progressives, who argue that state laws tightening election laws are designed to make it harder for Black, young and infrequent voters to cast ballots.
Some argue Biden ought to come out for a change in the filibuster rules that require 60 votes to advance most legislation, while Democrats only have 50 seats in the 100-seat chamber and Harris as a tie-breaker because the vice- president can preside in the Senate on such matters.
“Progressives are losing patience, and I think particularly African American Democrats are losing patience,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, a longtime aide to the former Senate majority leader and Nevada senator Harry Reid.
“They feel like they have done the kind of good Democrat thing over the last year-plus, going back to when Biden got the nomination, unifying support around Biden, turning out, showing up on election day.”
“Progressives feel like, ‘Hey, we did our part.’ And now when it’s time for the bill to be paid, so to speak, I think some progressives feel like, ‘OK, well, how long do we have to wait?’”
The progressive congresswoman Ayanna Pressley tweeted: “The people did not give Democrats the House, Senate and White House to compromise with insurrectionists. Abolish the filibuster so we can do the people’s work.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former presidential candidate, focused her ire on Republicans, but supports the campaign to overturn the Senate filibuster.
“We cannot throw our democracy over a cliff in order to protect a Senate rule that isn’t even part of the Constitution. End the filibuster,” she tweeted.
And the former Obama cabinet member and presidential candidate Julián Castro cranked up the pressure on fellow Democrats.
“Senate Democrats have a choice: end the filibuster and safeguard our democracy or let an extremist minority party chip away at it until it’s gone,” he tweeted after Tuesday’s legislative defeat.
Harris is expected to continue to meet with voting rights activists, business leaders and groups working on the issue in the states and speak out on the issue in the coming weeks.
Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, a progressive grassroots group, said advocacy on the the $1.9tn infrastructure bill has been stronger from the leadership.
“The president has been on the sidelines. He has issued statements of support, he’s maybe included a line or two in a speech here or there, but there has been nothing on the scale of his public advocacy for recovery for Covid relief, for roads and bridges,” Levin said.
“We think this is a crisis at the same level as crumbling roads and bridges, and if we agree on that, the question is, why is the president on the sidelines?”
White House aides point to Biden’s belief that his involvement risks undermining a deal before it’s cut.
But in private, advisers, speaking anonymously, currently see infrastructure as the bigger political winner for Biden because it’s widely popular among voters of both parties.