A high-profile speech by U.S. President Joe Biden on voting rights has received a lackluster reception from civil rights groups — a troubling sign from a crucial constituency less than 10 months out from midterm elections.

The NAACP, one of the largest civil rights groups in the United States, and the family of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the White House to go beyond speeches and act with the same urgency it has on its economic agenda to prod the deadlocked U.S. Senate to pass voting-rights legislation.

“Our democracy stands in its final hour,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job. Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be the priority.”

Black voters are an integral and reliable bloc for Democrats. Biden has credited African-Americans with resuscitating his flailing 2020 Democratic primary campaign and turning out to help propel him to the White House in the general election.

Maintaining that enthusiasm in this year’s midterms is vital as Democrats struggle to hold onto their slender majorities in the House and Senate.

Martin Luther King III, chair of the Drum Major Institute, also called for action, pointing to Biden’s nearly four decade career in the Senate. “The president cited his pedigree of dealmaking to pass voting rights legislation as a senator — we know he has the power and influence to do the same today,” King wrote in an emailed statement. “When we met with the president today, we reiterated that we expect strong action, not just words.”

Speaking at Morehouse College in Atlanta after visiting the crypt of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was a pastor, Biden called on the U.S. Senate to change its rules to overcome a Republican filibuster by allowing a simple majority to pass voting-rights legislation.

“The threat to our democracy is so grave, we must find a way to pass these voting rights bill, debate them, vote,” Biden said. “Let the majority prevail.”

Attendees listen as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Atlanta University Center Consortium in Atlanta on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG
Attendees listen as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the Atlanta University Center Consortium in Atlanta on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG

But Biden’s options are bound by the 50-50 Senate and the chamber’s rules on how legislation proceeds to a vote.

With Republicans unified in opposition to both election bills, the president is left with pleading for support to change the filibuster rule. But two Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — firmly oppose getting rid of the filibuster.

And Manchin, who also opposes creating a special exception for voting rights legislation, said Monday that rule changes should only be done with support from two-thirds of senators present.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina and a longtime Biden ally, praised the president’s speech, saying he “set the right tone on voting rights today.”

Clyburn, whose endorsement before the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary saved Biden’s campaign, echoed the call to modify the filibuster to get the bills passed. “The time has come to remove the impediment of the filibuster to protect against extreme attacks on the most basic constitutional right,” Clyburn wrote in an emailed statement.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Biden’s speech hit the mark. “There’s a degree of frustration over the fact that there’s been no action on these two bills,” said Morial, who was in attendance for Biden’s speech, in an interview. “The frustration also points at how Republicans have played this.”

Morial said Republican lawmakers should also be pressured and criticized for not joining Democrats in passing voting rights legislation, saying that such measures once enjoyed bipartisan support in the upper chamber. He said he would like to see the “same measures, the same tactics, the same energy in an ongoing basis, the full weight of the White House” that Biden used to gain passage on his bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said that groups agitating for more action from the White House are doing what they’re supposed to do in a democracy. But he added that Biden and Democrats must maintain the intensity that he displayed in his speech Tuesday in order to keep the base engaged for the upcoming congressional midterm elections.

“Here’s the good news. Hopefully what you’ll see starting today and moving forward is the White House and the entire Democratic apparatus moving and fighting for the number one issue before Black voters right now. If they do that I think they better position themselves for the midterms. If they don’t do that they’re screwed,” Belcher said.

A Jan. 4 poll by The Economist/YouGov showed Biden’s approval rating among Black voters was at 60%. That compares to 73% in February 2021. He carried 87% of the Black vote in the 2020 election.

Belcher said it’s not just Black voters that want to see the legislation passed — recalling the 2020 nationwide protests across racial lines prompted by George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

“All those young voters, those millennial voters who were in the streets and in some of these areas, the protests looked a lot more like a swirl than it did chocolate. Those voters were organized and mobilized and marching around bigger things, like equality and rights,” Belcher said.

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