(Bloomberg) -- The day after President Joe Biden decided to pardon marijuana smokers, the 79-year-old walked into a bookstore on the University of Pennsylvania campus with his granddaughter. One voice in the crowd outside shouted out: “Yo Joe, legalize that weed.”The Friday evening episode encapsulates the dilemma facing Biden on the heels of a headline-grabbing announcement that seems tailor-made to fire up young voters and Black Americans. He has to energize two lifelines for Democrats who tend not to show up for midterm elections but whose support are critical to his party, and indeed his own chances at re-election in 2024.
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These voters carried the president to victory in 2020 with near record turnout. In that election, 60% of young people cast their ballots for Biden as did an overwhelming 87% of Black people, according to exit polling data by Edison Research. But an NPR/Marist poll taken at the end of September shows the least likely respondents to say they were definitely voting in the Nov. 8 midterm elections were Black voters, Gen Zers and millennials.
With control of Congress balanced on a knife’s edge, Democrats are hoping to energize those voters again.
North Carolina state Representative Terry Brown said Thursday’s move to pardon people convicted on federal charges of marijuana possession, and an August announcement to forgive student loan debt, would help Democrats. That’s because they are tangible steps that voters can easily understand, unlike some of the broader legislation that Biden has signed over the last two years.
"In politics, you've got to get the work done, but you've also got to let people know that you're getting the work done," said Brown, a Charlotte Democrat. "Sometimes it takes these big splashy announcements to get people's attention."
The Democrats are fighting an uphill battle after failing to pass key legislation on voting rights and police reform, and given that more voters disapprove than approve of Biden’s job performance. History also isn’t on their side as they hold whisper-thin majorities in the House and Senate and the party in power has almost always lost seats during the midterm elections.
On the flip side, a string of legislative victories, including a funding bill with billions of dollars to combat climate change, an issue of concern to young voters, as well as a Supreme Court ruling that overturned abortion rights and stumbles by some Republican candidates, has buoyed Democrats in recent months.
The pardons for marijuana possession inspired 'Dank Brandon' memes on Twitter, a reference to a fictional alter ego crafted by supporters and digital strategists of Biden, known as "Dark Brandon." It’s a play on a conservative euphemism for a Biden insult: “Let’s Go Brandon.”
Historically, last-minute attempts to shift the electorate haven't worked. Texas Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha recalled how Democrats pinned their hopes on turning around the 1994 midterms on a crime bill that was signed in mid-September.
But the media environment has changed dramatically since then, especially among young voters, who tend to get their information from social media apps like Instagram and Tik Tok.
"It was all over their news feeds," he said.
Biden used his presidential authority to announce pardons for thousands of Americans convicted in federal courts of possession of marijuana. The number of people affected isn’t large -- an estimated 6,500 convicted in federal courts, and a few thousand more in the District of Columbia’s system -- but the White House is betting the symbolism and his backing for decriminalization will resonate with the two groups.
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Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, despite studies showing the groups use the drug at similar rates. The president’s pardon will likely clear the slates of numerous Black people who often face barriers to employment and housing with a conviction on their record.
“This is one of the boldest uses of this pardon power in furtherance of social justice in modern American history,” Marc Morial, president of National Urban League, a civil rights organization, said in an interview. “I hope what young people will recognize is in 2020, people made an investment in change, and now they see ‘My vote counts.’”
Younger Americans are more likely to support decriminalization of marijuana, and they report using the drug at higher rates than previous generations. The White House also asked federal agencies to re-examine the drug’s legal classification, which currently places cannabis in the same category as heroin, despite its approval for medical use in 37 states.
Chiraag Bains, a deputy director of the White House's domestic policy council, focused on racial justice and equity, said the point of the announcement was to deliver on the president's campaign promise, despite the close timing to the elections.
"Given that Congress has not acted, and that we're almost done with this session of Congress, it was critical for the president to take this action," Bains said in an interview. "That was what was going on."
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Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has long called for the decriminalization of marijuana, said previous administrations were wrong to impose tough crime policies leading to incarceration for marijuana possession.
"This isn't a Black problem. This is an American problem," Johnson said. "And because it is an American problem, I hope voters can understand the value of their votes."
The marijuana pardons followed an announcement in August that up to $20,000 in loans for qualified student borrowers would be canceled. That drew complaints from Republicans and even some centrists, but has been popular among the young and African-Americans.
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According to a Quinnipiac University poll, Black respondents supported the administration’s debt relief package by 81%, and voters of all races between the ages of 18 and 34 supported the measure by 69%. The relief comes at a time when students face soaring tuition costs, and Black borrowers owe more in loans on average than White borrowers.
Johnson said Biden has a track record of using his office to address issues young people care about, including climate change, the student debt crisis and now marijuana policy, and he hopes it will bring those voters to the polls.
"It is important that we have the type of turnout to ensure we protect democracy," he added.
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