How fair are criticisms of Biden’s response to Roe’s repeal?

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What’s happening

In the weeks following the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended constitutional protections for abortion, the White House has come under strong criticism from many Democrats for what they see as a tepid response from President Biden and his administration.

But Biden has not been silent on the issue. He gave a speech shortly after the ruling was released denouncing the “extreme ideology” of the court and pledged to do “all in my power” to protect access to abortion. A core part of his message, though, was that his authority on the issue is limited. The only way to restore nationwide abortion rights, Biden said, is to elect more Democrats to Congress who will pass legislation to do so.

In the days that followed, a number of progressive Democrats and abortion rights activists made the case that Biden’s administration lacked a clear plan for responding to Roe’s reversal and wasn’t using the full scope of its powers to protect abortion access. Many groups, including the Congressional Black Caucus, have called on Biden to declare a public health emergency. Others have urged the administration to provide abortion access on federal lands inside states that have banned the procedure. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith wrote an op-ed arguing that the ruling shows the need for broader reforms to the American democratic system, including changes to the composition of the Supreme Court, an end to the Senate filibuster and even a reconsideration of the Electoral College.

While Biden is somewhere between skeptical of and strongly opposed to most of those ideas, he did say late last month that he supports creating a narrow carveout to the filibuster — which creates a 60-vote threshold for most legislation to pass — in order to codify abortion protections. He also signed an executive order last week aimed at expanding access to abortion pills and legal protections for people who lawfully receive or perform abortions. On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services published guidance saying federal law requires doctors to perform abortions when the mother’s life is at risk, regardless of what state law says.

Why there’s debate

Despite these actions, Biden’s critics on the left have argued that he has been far too passive when considering the gravity of the court’s decision. While they concede that no president has the power to unilaterally defy the court’s rulings, they argue that the administration should be pulling every possible lever to defend abortion access, even if those moves might be controversial or face legal challenges. Others say the president hasn’t done enough in his speeches and public statements to show pro-abortion-rights voters that he shares their anger — a problem they fear may suppress Democratic turnout in the upcoming midterms.

But Biden’s defenders say any perceived shortcomings reflect the limits of his powers, rather than his own actions, or lack thereof. Some also argue that many of the more aggressive steps — particularly the idea of providing abortions on federal lands — would be outside the scope of his authority or swiftly blocked by the Supreme Court. There are also concerns that Biden mounting a “scorched earth” response to Roe’s repeal might threaten the integrity of the democratic system and turn away swing voters the party needs to hold its majorities in Congress.

Though this debate has mostly been among Democrats, some conservatives have argued that even Biden’s more limited actions represent an executive overreach that violates states rights’ to establish and enforce their own laws.

What’s next

Biden told reporters on Sunday that he’s weighing whether to declare a public health emergency in support of abortion access. While in theory that might free up more federal resources, some in the administration believe it would be a largely symbolic gesture with little on-the-ground impact.



Many of Biden’s progressive critics are asking him to perform miracles

“Most of the things that have made liberals upset with President Joe Biden are functions of the basic political context, not about Biden himself, or the White House staff, or Democratic leaders in Congress. That’s not to say that they’re all doing everything perfectly, but just that any differences between what Biden is doing and what plausible Democratic alternatives would be are marginal.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

Biden risks looking foolish if he oversteps his authorities

“Obviously, a serious administration doesn’t want to put itself in the position of looking ridiculous with symbolic acts that are impractical or would do very little to address the problem.” — Bill Galston, political scientist, to Vox

Biden isn’t getting credit for his bold response to Roe’s repeal

“There’s just one problem with the too-cool-Joe complaints: Biden has been saying — heatedly and repeatedly — exactly that which he is accused of avoiding.” — Dana Milbank, Washington Post

Biden understands that no amount of executive action will restore abortion rights

“Executive orders are at best temporary measures — easily reversed by the next president or overturned in court — and frequently ineffectual. As a creature of the Senate, in which he served for more than three decades, Biden prefers legislating to governing by executive fiat.” — Courtney Subramanian, Los Angeles Times

America’s democratic institutions are more important than any single policy fight

“I think this is a dangerous game Democrats are playing — so openly broadcasting their intentions — and it raises the stakes when the president says it as well. He has, up to now, distanced himself some from those proposals and posed himself more as a moderate and institutionalist … but when he is openly calling for it, it becomes the stated position of the Democratic party.” — Kimberley Strassel, Wall Street Journal


Democrats need to mimic the GOP’s all-in legal strategy on abortion

“With Roe in ruins, the president has no choice but to test audacious and uncharted strategies to preserve as much abortion access as possible. For decades, the anti-abortion movement has pushed the legal envelope to deny women autonomy over their bodies and lives. Supporters of abortion rights must be equally resourceful to reduce harm from their constitutional coup.” — Lawrence Gostin and Duncan Hosie, Politico

There’s no excuse for not having a comprehensive plan the moment Roe was repealed

“For the Biden administration to come into office without a clear plan and strategy for this exact situation is executive malpractice. Republicans were ready to take advantage of the [decision overturning Roe] the moment it came out. Why weren’t Democrats ready with countermeasures?” — Elie Mystal, The Nation

The president should be vocally championing a long-term plan to counter the court’s conservative majority

“Democrats need to give their base something to vote for. One such answer might be a plan to repair the court — one that goes beyond restoring Roe v. Wade and demonstrates a deeper vision for reimagining America’s political system in an era of crisis. That may require years, even decades, of work, but if liberals need inspiration, they can look to the decades-long effort the right mounted to overturn Roe.” — Ezra Klein, New York Times

Even if it comes up short, the effort to defend abortion rights matters

“We are in a crisis and we need fighters — we need people with energy and ideas. … We are well aware that restoring nationwide access to abortions is not going to be easy but we need leaders who will at least TRY.” — Arwa Mahdawi, Guardian

Biden’s has wasted a huge political opportunity for Democrats

“For Democrats going into the midterms, the overturn of Roe v. Wade should have been a classic wedge issue. The abortion issue doesn't just unify the Democratic base, it creates a wedge between the fundamentalists and the rest of the GOP base that isn't nearly so keen on the politics of prudery. … Instead, however, President Joe Biden is doing the opposite. The president is letting the abortion issue divide Democrats while Republican voters get to ignore their own responsibility for allowing the Roe overturn to happen.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon

It’s insulting to tell people to go vote when that’s what they’ve already done

“The message boils down to if you want to see the protections, rights, and freedoms that were taken by six extremists on the Supreme Court restored, vote for Democrats this November. While the message is accurate, it is woefully insufficient. It also flies in the face of the reality of the last two years. The truth is people did vote. In record numbers in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.” — Doug Gordon, Newsweek

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