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Nothing unites Congress like the arrival of August, when Democrats and Republicans collectively curse Washington’s sweltering summer heat and decamp the city for a monthlong vacation. This year lawmakers will frolic on the beach while millions of Americans face imminent eviction after the federal government’s national eviction moratorium expired last weekend.
Not all Democrats are so sanguine about the possibility of making as many 3.6 million people homeless over the next two months. Missouri Rep. Cori Bush slept on the Capitol steps Sunday night in solidarity with renters facing the boot, but the party’s biggest names have remained almost totally silent in the face of an imminent catastrophe.
Joe Biden’s promised “return to normalcy” increasingly looks like the White House staying to the side as congressional Democrats duck out of tough and necessary policy fights. In the case of rent relief, the president did nothing to help advance legislation after the Supreme Court in June shot down an attempt to end the eviction freeze in a decision where Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who cast the deciding vote, made it clear that Congress would have to act to extend the program.
Unfortunately for the country, there’s no hope for rent relief—or more ambitious goals like protecting voting rights—until Biden drafts the Democratic Party’s heavy-hitters into the fight.
Crafting effective crisis messaging is one area where Republicans have vaulted past Democrats, thanks in large part to Donald Trump’s high-stakes, made-for-television approach to governing. Biden has been naturally skeptical of walking any path once trod by Trumpist jackboots, and in many cases his caution is merited. When presidents and political parties use the language of crisis for cynical political gain, like the GOP’s bogus “migrant caravan” hysteria, it corrodes public trust in institutions and worsens political polarization. Responsible leaders will avoid those outcomes at all costs.
But the loss of our national eviction moratorium is not a manufactured crisis—it is real, and it jeopardizes the financial and housing security of millions of Americans across all political viewpoints. That’s because even though rental evictions have expired, most of the money Congress designated to support rental relief programs has yet to be spent. In fact, renters have only received about 12 percent of the $25 billion in rent relief Congress authorized back in March. Now Congress is declaring “Mission Accomplished” with nearly nine of every 10 dollars in rent support unspent as states, including New York, have failed to give out this money.
“We’ve known for a month that the eviction moratorium would end Sunday,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “Congress adjourned for 7 weeks without doing ANYTHING about it… how can we go home when so many are about to lose theirs?”
If only other Democrats were so concerned. Barack Obama, widely regarded as one of the party’s best communicators and for the last 12 years the most respected figure in American life, hasn’t said a word about the financial cliff facing renters. That’s understandable—the Obama messaging operation has been busy hyping up the former president’s 60th birthday bash at a sprawling mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. At nearly 500 guests, more senior Democrats will attend Obama’s swanky party than went on television to condemn Republicans for blocking rent relief.
With 14 percent of U.S. renters behind on their payments, at least a few of the “200-plus staff” working at Obama’s birthday spectacular will get back from the party just in time to pack up their apartments.
Ditto for Hillary Clinton, who in her 2016 concession speech exhorted Americans that “our constitutional democracy demands our participation.” That fire for participatory action has apparently faded: Clinton hasn’t mentioned the rental crisis once on social media or at public events in 2021.
But Obama and Clinton are private citizens, you may be tempted to rage-tweet. If Democrats want to effectively transform their policy vision into actual law, they’ll need to get past the idea that our most effective messengers are exempt from the all-hands-on-deck effort to repair the damage wrought by Trumpism. The elite Democrats who correctly framed our national situation as a crisis during the 2020 campaign are giving activists and voters whiplash now with the sudden calls for slow, incremental policy changes.
As to Biden, he did at least ask Congress to extend the eviction moratorium for a measly 30 days. But when lawmakers balked at the idea of being held in town during their summer vacation, the president let them leave without so much as a press conference slamming such an act of callous selfishness. So much for “the buck stops here.”
“Extending the eviction moratorium is a moral imperative, and one that is simple and necessary,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told fellow lawmakers last week. But you won’t see any big Oval Office speech from Biden on the importance of keeping our fellow Americans off the streets. You won’t hear Obama’s soaring rhetoric about getting through tough times together. Despite Bidenland’s frequent praise for progressive reformer President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Biden is clearly uncomfortable embracing the big, bombastic, partywide public persuasion campaigns that made FDR’s tenure such an unstoppable force.
Instead of organizing a national campaign to galvanize public opinion and put heat on obstinate Republicans, Democrats have once again signaled they are unwilling to push for policies that are critical to their core Black and brown constituencies. What’s worse, establishment Democrats are squandering critical resources attacking progressive primary challengers like Ohio’s Nina Turner ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Turner, to her credit, has been a regular critic of Democratic inaction on rent relief.
Democrats’ infighting and inaction leaves the media landscape open for the GOP to portray genuine concerns about rent relief as mere political posturing. If this was a real crisis, the Republican line goes, Biden would be treating it like one.
Ocasio-Cortez, Bush and others in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party correctly see rent relief as a winning issue for Democrats, one Biden has inexplicably left to rot while keeping the party’s best communicators on the bench. With a slow media month ahead, Biden and congressional Democrats have a golden opportunity to control the media cycle with a big, public push for protecting American renters. All they need is the political courage to throw the first punch.