On restoring access to abortion, President Joe Biden said his hands were tied without more Democratic senators. His aides say declaring a public health emergency on the issue has downsides. And as for gun violence, Biden has been clear about the limits of what he can do alone.
“There’s a Constitution,” Biden said from the South Lawn in late May. “I can’t order these.”
Throughout this century, presidents have often pushed vigorously to expand the boundaries of executive power. Biden said more about its limits.
When it comes to the toughest issues facing his administration, the instinct from Biden and his White House is often to talk about what he can’t do, citing court-imposed constraints or court-imposed constraints. not enough support in the Congress controlled by his own party – barely though. .
He delivered a heavy dose of reality when speaking to an increasingly hostile Democratic base, which has demanded action on issues like abortion and voting rights ahead of the November election.
White House officials and allies of the president say that approach represents a leader who has always promised to be honest with Americans, including how far his power actually expands.
But Biden’s actual leanings are colliding with a base of activists who are agitating a more belligerent party leader – both in tone and substance. Although candidate Biden considers himself the man who knows Washington’s line best, he is still plagued by the same obstacles that have afflicted his predecessors.
“I think if you procrastinate on important actions like this because of a legal challenge, you’re not going to do anything,” said Representative Judy Chu, D-Calif. “People across the country are expecting us – the leaders – to do something.”
Biden’s wary approach could be to protect itself if the White House fails – just as Democrats did when negotiating a partisan spending package that focuses on social safety nets and other conditions. climate account. That far-reaching effort has been repeatedly thwarted by resistance from two moderate Democrats, one of whom is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who on Thursday assessed the effort to shrink the focus. focus on climate and taxes.
That development prompted Democratic senators to call on Biden to unilaterally declare a climate emergency. In a statement Friday while in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Biden pledged to take “robust executive action to meet this moment” on climate. But in recent weeks, the gap between “yes, we can” and “no, we can’t” has been seen as the clearest about abortion.
Since the Supreme Court last month overturned Roe v. Wade’s landmark 1973 ruling with constitutional protections for abortion, the White House has come under considerable pressure to try to Trying to maintain access to abortion in conservative states is seen as banning the procedure.
For example, supporters have begged Biden to consider setting up abortion clinics on federal land. They have asked the government to help transport women who want abortions to a state that offers the procedure. And Democratic lawmakers are urging the White House to declare a public health emergency.
Without completely dismissing the idea, White House aides have expressed skepticism about such requests. And even when he signed an executive order last week to begin addressing the issue, Biden had a clear, consistent message: that he can’t do this on his own, turn your attention to the top. across from Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The only way we can ensure women’s right to choose and the balance that exists is for Congress to restore Roe v. Wade protections as federal law,” Biden said shortly after the court brought Roe down. . “No executive action from the president can do that.
Shortly after announcing that the legislation – a Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most new legislation to pass – should not apply to abortion and privacy measures, Biden admitted during the interview. meeting with Democratic governors that his new position would not make a difference, at least not immediately.
Biden talks about writing Roe protections into federal law. “But right now, we don’t have the votes in the Senate to change the film.”
Biden, who served 36 years in the Senate, is an institutionalist at his core and has tried to operate under the constraints of those institutions – unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who has repeatedly push the boundaries of executive power.
But some supporters don’t want to hear Biden about what he can’t do.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and chief executive officer of We Testify, an organization that advocates for women who have had abortions, said authorities should proceed with a public health emergency even if it ends up being disabled. court to prevent.
“It tells people who need an abortion that the president is trying to help them, and what’s stopping him is the court, not himself or his own prediction of what might happen.” She said, later adding: “The fact that he’s an institutionalist and can’t look around and see the institutions around him collapsing is the problem.”
Democratic lawmakers also continued to urge senior administration officials behind the scenes. During a virtual meeting last week, Chu urged Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, to ask the authorities to declare a public health emergency. Proponents of the idea say it would open up certain powers and resources to not only 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 Radical Conference that the administration had two key questions: How would the administration supplement the emergency fund? public health and what will this move actually achieve?
Skepticism has not discouraged Democratic lawmakers. But some of the most ardent advocates of extensive executive action on abortion have also warned voters and their activists to be realistic.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn said: “It is unrealistic to think that they have the power and authority to defend access to abortion services in every part of this country because of what the Courts do. Supreme did.
In a sense, the gun’s recent success is an endorsement of Biden’s possible artistic approach, advocates say. Instead of promising what he couldn’t achieve, Biden instead spoke of his limitations and warned that any significant change would need the support of at least 10 Republicans in the Senate. hospital – a goal that seemed unattainable at first.
That culminated last week with a ceremony marking the signing into law of the first significant gun restrictions in about three decades.
“I think the president has struck the absolute right balance,” said John Feinblatt, Everytown president of Gun Safety.
Concerns about restrictions on Biden’s executive power are not just hypothetical. His administration’s efforts to tame the coronavirus pandemic, for example, have been repeatedly challenged by courts, including requiring masks to be worn during mass transit and vaccination regulations for companies with at least 100 worker.
Then-President Barack Obama issued similar warnings in the face of immigration activists urging him to use his power to issue deportation orders against millions of young undocumented immigrants. has legal status in the United States.
Obama in 2012 unilaterally enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which still exists today. Two years later, Obama more fully adopted a written and telephone strategy, signaling to Congress that he would not hesitate to use executive orders if lawmakers continued to adopt his domestic agenda. he.
“Nobody thinks he has a magic wand here. People understand that there are limitations,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder and co-CEO of the Indivisible Project. “What they want to see is him treating this like a crisis where people in the red states are losing access to abortion.”