Black People Are Not Going to Save Joe Biden

President Biden Holds Campaign Rally In Philadelphia

A Biden rally in May in Philadelphia.
Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

On Sunday morning, President Joe Biden visited Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, one of the biggest Black churches in Philadelphia. In a concise seven-minute speech, he shared a message of hope and unity. “I, honest to God, have never been more optimistic about America’s future if we stick together,” he reassured the congregation.

Across the country, the mood among Democrats was the opposite. Ten days earlier, the president gave what MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough called “the worst debate performance in modern history,” a painful display of meandering half-thoughts and mumbled utterances that sent party donors, liberal columnists, and lawmakers into a panic. The president dismissed this setback as the result of a nagging cold and traveled to Philadelphia to convince Black voters to, in so many words, save him. Biden’s plea was more overt in a call with members of the Congressional Black Caucus the following day. “I need you guys,” the 81-year-old president said, according to Politico.

The thrust of Biden’s post-debate damage-control strategy has been to show that, while some party elites and “self-important podcasters” may have written him off as a desiccated has-been, his base still believes in him. “I think it’s interesting that not one African American member has called on the president to step down,” Cedric Richmond, a Black co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, told Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who described the Biden team’s motto as being, “It’s older Black women in church pews who will decide the nominee, thank you very much.”

Indeed, many rank-and-file Black lawmakers, from Ohio’s Joyce Beatty to California’s Maxine Waters, have rallied to the president’s defense, endorsements that have helped his campaign run roughshod over legitimate concerns about his cognitive fitness and reframe his refusal to step aside as a product of Black wisdom rather than his own hubris.

Unfortunately, Black people are not political sages, but human beings who can be just as short-sighted as anyone else. And the CBC, in particular, has positioned itself at the vanguard of a bigger movement to imperil the very democracy Black voters have been credited with saving.

For Team Biden, Black support is meant to invoke the dubious post-2016 motif that Black people, and Black women in particular, are uniquely prescient and capable guardians of the republic. In the wake of Trump’s election, social media was flooded with an erroneous exit-poll statistic that said 52 percent of white women voted for the GOP nominee. (The real number was closer to 47 percent.) This was contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming 96-point advantage with Black women, which led to a proliferation of posts and paraphernalia touting their unmatched foresight. “Black women tried to warn you” was emblazoned on T-shirts and repeated like a mantra on social media whenever Trump did something beyond the pale.

When the 2020 primaries came around, Biden recast this allegiance as a political debt. “You brought me back!” he gratefully proclaimed to Representative James Clyburn after the South Carolinian’s endorsement revived his campaign in a state where most Democrats are Black. In return, Biden promised to choose a Black woman running-mate, and once Election Night rolled around, with Kamala Harris at his side, the resilience of his Rust Belt “Blue Wall,” along with his surprise victory in Georgia, were widely attributed to Black voters in Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia. It was thanks to them that the Democrats had produced a candidate capable of defeating Donald Trump.

A year into his presidency, Biden vowed to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. He followed through by seating Ketanji Brown Jackson while presiding over record-low Black unemployment and temporarily halving the number of Black children living in poverty. The president’s comparatively strong record on Black economic issues largely made up for the fact that his pledges to empower Black women often felt weirdly transactional and a tad performative. He looked like a wise investment — ousting Trump and narrowing the racial wealth gap would have seemed a success to almost any Black voter.

But Biden was also 78 years old in 2020, and the degree to which age has since diminished him has become starkly apparent to everyone, very much including Black voters. The president’s uncanny stare and alleged difficulty recalling the names of people he’s known for years can make him seem almost somnambulant. Though it’s plausible he’s a more competent commander-in-chief than he is a campaigner, it’s hard to envision him going full throttle until he is 86.

The irony of Biden’s recent emphasis on the wisdom of Black voters is that he is currently doing worse with those voters than any recent Democratic candidate. The president’s overall Black support — he won 92 percent of the Black vote in 2020 — has eroded considerably, according to multiple surveys. Ipsos reported in June that Biden’s favorability among Black voters fell from 55 percent in 2022 to 48 percent today. A New York Times–Siena poll in May painted an especially dire picture of Biden’s outlook in six swing states: Across Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, only 63 percent of Black voters said they would vote for Biden over Trump in November. That number fell to a subterranean 49 percent when third-party candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West were included. If these figures hold, they would make Biden the weakest Democratic nominee with Black voters in decades, probably an insurmountable disadvantage when a majority of voters across every demographic already thinks he’s too old to be president.

Whatever supposed Black wisdom led to his victory in 2020 appears not to have anticipated the extent of his struggles in 2024. At worst, his most vocal Black boosters, including those in Congress, are guilty of buying into the same delusion that has reportedly afflicted his inner circle and family members: the notion that Biden’s mental deterioration was a minor inconvenience that could be concealed as part of a triumphant reelection bid, rather than a major problem that needed to be confronted.

Now, as the Congressional Black Caucus doubles down as the most reliably pro-Biden cohort on Capitol Hill, it’s hard not to reflect on that organization’s migration from the fringes of Democratic Party influence to its center. At its inception in the early 1970s, the CBC was a thorn in the side of the party Establishment, with a redistributive platform, anchored by guaranteed health care, that was inspired by the pan-Africanist politics of the era. But as its ranks swelled, it became a negotiating force in Congress and a fundraising juggernaut. It started to soften its principles, regularly backing incumbents — sometimes even white ones — over upstarts with fresher ideas for advancing Black interests. With its crucial intervention into the debate over Biden’s age, it may have hurt those interests even further, shoring up a candidate who most analysts believe is setting the stage for Trump to take back the White House.

As Black voters and activists well know, the line between credit and blame is perilously thin. While they are sometimes hailed as heroes, it’s also common to see Democratic losses at the ballot box blamed on insufficient Black turnout, even though it is white voters who have fallen in such vast numbers under Trumpism’s thrall. Biden’s use of Black support as a crutch for his shortcomings similarly asks far too much of Black people, who are caught between being his imagined saviors and enablers. The greater reward for their loyalty would be to treat them like people and provide a clearer path to the candidate we all deserve, rather than settling for the one we’ve got.

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