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By Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden renewed pledges to protect voting rights and reform law enforcement at a commencement speech at South Carolina State University, a historically Black college, while stressing the deeply divided nation's future was in their hands.
Biden traveled to the South Carolina school as opinion polls show he is losing ground with young voters and the future of his legislative agenda hangs in the balance in Washington.
He recounted his presidential campaign’s dire straits in early 2020 and his childhood stutter, saying he knows what it's like when people have low expectations.
"No graduating class gets to choose the world in which they graduate," Biden said in a comment that could describe his own term in office, where he inherited a once-in-a-century pandemic and sharp political polarization.
But he expressed optimism for the future, saying that diverse graduates are taking up judicial and executive roles during his time in Washington and changing the world.
"Your time here has come during a tumultuous and consequential moment in American history. ... Few classes every once in a few generations enter at a point in American history where it actually has the chance to change the trajectory of the country," he said.
"I'm counting on you, I really am," he told the graduates.
Biden lost the first three Democratic nominating contests of the 2020 presidential campaign before a win in South Carolina boosted him to ultimately win the national primary. U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn gave a late endorsement that was regarded as crucial for Biden in the South Carolina election.
The White House has so far been unable to push new laws on key Biden campaign promises that won him Black voter support, including reforming U.S. law enforcement and shoring up voting rights.
"The fight's not over," Biden said on police brutality issues.
"Maybe most important of all we have to protect that sacred right to vote," said Biden, who has been in talks with senators about how to pursue Democratic-backed electoral reforms over the unyielding opposition of Republicans.
"Without the right to vote, there is no democracy," the president said.
He called Republican-led attempts to curtail voter enfranchisement "sinister," "undemocratic," and "unprecedented since Reconstruction."
"It used to be called the Republican Party," he said in an uncharacteristic swipe at the opposition. "We are going to keep up the fight until we get it done." But he gave no details about what legislative strategy would be used to push through Democratic-backed bills Biden has endorsed for months.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)