Two weeks after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, three months after a draft of that opinion leaked to the press, and nearly two years after a Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death made the elimination of that right more likely than not, President Joe Biden entered the chat.
Describing the Dobbs decision as “an exercise in raw political power” from an “out of control” court, Biden on Friday signed an executive order that would safeguard certain reproductive health services, protect patients’ private medical records, form an interagency reproductive health care task force, and more. The administration is said to be considering declaring lack of abortion access a public health emergency, too, in a mostly symbolic move.
It was Biden’s first appearance since the Dobbs decision where he showed some of the fire that a change of this magnitude merited.
But that it took him weeks to at least begin with the rhetorical pushback and policy tinkering—weeks to assert himself in the fray following an abrupt yet widely signaled, massive policy change—baffled both Democratic lawmakers and voters alike. What was he doing? And what, really, does he want to do?
As Biden noted, there’s nothing he can personally do to restore abortion access to anything resembling the pre-Dobbs status quo. Conservatives won. It will take a couple of additional Senate seats—and retention of the House of Representatives—to pass a federal law protecting abortion rights.
And yet, the fumbling about for a spell before he awakens to the fire is a recurring pattern.
Consider early in his 2020 presidential campaign, when Biden stood by his support of the Hyde Amendment, an annually renewed budget provision that since the 1970s has prohibited federal funding for abortions. After a week or so of criticism and talking-tos from his staff, Biden reversed his position. (As with most presidential election policy debates, this was all academic, as there aren’t the votes in Congress—filibuster or no filibuster—to pass a government funding bill without the Hyde Amendment.) He arrived at a popular position with Democratic primary voters, but not convincingly, a week later.
In March 2020—after he’d assumed a dominating position in the presidential primary and was negotiating the support of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—Biden’s campaign tweeted out: “We should forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans.”
That he came around to this position just when he was trying to coalesce the progressive wing of the party and its leading contenders behind his candidacy was not a strong indication he loved the idea. And clearly, it wasn’t something he was dying to do. In the first year of Biden’s presidency, the White House tried to kick student debt forgiveness to Congress, which kicked it right back to him. If he does eventually cancel $10,000 in student debt through executive action, opponents of the idea will have him for lunch, while supporters will ask what took him so long, and why he didn’t forgive more.
Another example: During the omicron wave of COVID, the administration was pressed on the distribution of more at-home rapid tests. In an infamous exchange for which she’s been kicking herself ever since, White House press secretary Jen Psaki snapped, sarcastically, at a reporter: “Should we just send one to every American?” Precisely two weeks later, the administration announced a program to do just that.
Finally, there’s the issue of the Senate filibuster. Biden has not said he’d support eliminating it entirely—not that he gets a vote on it, anyway. But every time a new, pressing issue is stymied by the 60-vote rule, he’s coaxed into supporting a new exception, months after most Democratic members of the Senate have. He did so in the final push for voting rights legislation over the winter, as civil rights groups were imploring him to show a little urgency. He did so on abortion rights a week after the Dobbs decision.
Being the president of the United States is hard—the second-hardest job in the world, probably, behind leading the Democratic Party coalition. Biden has both of these jobs, and not every decision is going to be perfectly timed.
But his characteristic lateness to the party, and his seeming absence from the great debates of the day—until the public clamor grows loud enough to drag him out to a microphone—is not something he’s incapable of overcoming. When he has a goal he truly cares about, he is able to be proactive rather than reactive.
For example, Biden cares deeply about the preservation of NATO and thwarting the imperialist ambitions of Vladimir Putin. He was not caught off guard by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, and had spent months working behind the scenes to maintain unity among NATO countries and to share information about Russia’s plans. That work significantly raised the cost of Putin’s action.
Also, since the beginning of the Obama administration, Biden has believed it necessary to cut bait and remove Americans from Afghanistan. It was one of those campaign pledges that he meant. He followed through on it, despite overwhelming criticism from allies both at home and abroad. That is not to say that the withdrawal didn’t come with severe costs. The human costs to Afghans have been immense, but the move also precipitated an approval rating collapse that’s been running nearly a year strong now. It was an incredible difficult decision to make in the short term that Biden believed would be the right one in the long term. He made it happen.
The Biden administration has clearly concluded—well, for now!—that there are abortion policies it can’t make happen post-Dobbs. Some have suggested, for example, that the administration should set up abortion clinics on federal land. The administration considered the option but determined it “could not protect other women or providers once they stepped off federal land,” according to the Washington Post.
Those things Biden determined he could do last Friday through executive order, though, and those things he may yet decide he can do after all, should have been done five seconds after the Dobbs decision dropped—or at least before the first Democratic fundraising email went out. If it takes weeks of cajoling to match the sense of urgency that Democratic voters feel following something so monumental as the elimination of a constitutional right, Democratic voters might just look elsewhere for support.