Blow: Biden’s conventional appeal to black voters needs an overhaul

Blow: Biden’s conventional appeal to black voters needs an overhaul

Let’s start here: A second Donald Trump presidency is a disaster scenario.

And if, in 2024, Joe Biden is the only thing standing between Trump and the White House, then Biden’s success may well be the last hope for the country as we know it. In that case — the most likely one at this point — America needs Biden to succeed. That’s why it’s so distressing when he comes up short in his appeals to the voters he’ll need to win reelection.

Last week, Biden delivered a speech at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — Mother Emanuel — a historic Black church that was the site of a massacre, carried out by a white supremacist, in 2015.

It was one of Biden’s attempts to reach out to Black voters, a constituency from which he desperately needs enthusiastic support but that is going soft on him and, polls have shown, a part of which may even be drifting to Trump.

The president’s speech was a chance to offer a vision for his second term, but there was hardly any vision in it. It focused on what his administration has done and not what it will do. It landed like someone coming to collect a payment for services rendered rather than to celebrate victories with a partner before mapping out future plans.

This stands in contrast to Trump, who is offering a vision for America, albeit the darkest, bleakest vision imaginable. Part of that contrast may be the nature of the relationship of challengers — change agents — to incumbents, continuity proponents.

But Biden needs to find a better balance.

Focus on key issues

In a speech two weeks after he was sworn in, Biden said: “Racial equity will not just be an issue for one department in our administration. It has to be the business of the whole of government in all our federal policies and institutions.”

The White House has been quick, rightfully so, to tout its steps, across agencies, to make American life more equitable. And there’s nothing wrong with Biden noting, as he did at Mother Emanuel, that on his watch, jobs have been created and inflation has eased.

And yet concern about Biden among many voters, particularly Black voters, centers on a few key issues — economic struggles, regardless of what economic indicators say; a handful of tent-pole promises, such as enhancing voting rights protections, that Republicans prevented Biden from fulfilling; and, for younger Black voters, his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

The Mother Emanuel speech could have and should have outlined what Biden plans to do on those issues in a second term, how he plans to build on his successes or to create new initiatives and how the specific concerns of Black voters fit within those plans and that vision.

But that opportunity was missed, instead replaced by a standard candidate-in-the-pulpit pitch. It was safe, conventional and uninspiring. It seemed at times to be stuck in a bygone era in which churches were the primary source of political power and messaging in Black communities.

But that time is passing. A Pew Research Center report from 2021 found that nearly half of Black millennials and Gen Z-ers seldom or never attend church, and those who do go to church are less likely to go to predominantly Black churches than their older counterparts.

Listen to young voters

Young Black voters have come of age during a time of activism rooted not in religion but in a theory of intersectional struggles, an elevation of individual identities and a sense of being failed by their forebears. They’re feeling their power and expressing it on a wide range of issues.

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When protesters demanding a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip interrupted Biden’s speech, he responded by saying, “I understand their passion” and “I’ve been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.” But “quietly working” isn’t a satisfactory answer for young voters who are convinced they’re witnessing a genocide supported by an American president.

During his speech, Biden denounced white supremacy as a “poison” that has “for too long haunted this nation.”

But Bree Newsome Bass, who famously ascended a flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol to take down a Confederate flag just days after the massacre at Mother Emanuel, offered one of the sharpest critiques of Biden’s speech, given his stance on the war in Gaza, saying that “he is sponsoring a genocide, and genocide is the most extreme form of racial violence that there is.”

This is the bind Biden is in when appealing to young Black voters: how to get them to measure him and his record against the alterative and see that this year’s election will be between a candidate who may disappoint and another intending to destroy.

The Biden team seems to understand that it has a challenge when it comes to the Black electorate and is trying to address it. But a rote grocery list of initiatives and trauma bonding over Black oppression is less resonant in this election and with this candidate.

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times columnist.