The day after a draft opinion showing the Supreme Court on the cusp of overturning Roe v. Wade leaked to the press, President Joe Biden found himself in a familiar place: in the most left-wing Democrats' crosshairs.
Biden condemned the opinion as “radical” and said it goes “way overboard.” But he inflamed pro-abortion rights activists when he spoke about the landmark ruling that allows women “to abort a child.” Chanting “Shame on Joe” outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, protesters chided the president for failing to prepare the public for the decision being reversed.
For months, Biden has faced criticism for leaning on euphemisms such as "Roe" or “reproductive healthcare” to describe abortion rather than the word itself. The activist group We Testify has led the charge online, lambasting Biden for his rhetorical two-step from the Twitter handle “@SayAbortionJoe.” About a Texas ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, the group said last week that Biden “hasn’t done much of anything.”
Liberals want Biden to act before the Supreme Court does.
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In a blistering column, Rebecca Traister panned Biden for waiting “until 9:30 Tuesday morning to publicly weigh in.” The statement “was also allergic to the word abortion,” she wrote, pointing to a lone fourth-paragraph reference.
“Sir, we elected you, and you didn’t get out of bed to speak to the American people the night this devastating document leaked,” wrote Traister.
Biden has pledged to protect abortion rights, writing Tuesday that “we will be ready when any ruling is issued.” Still, the president is hamstrung in his power to alter a post-Roe landscape to guarantee abortion access.
In Congress, Democrats have promised to hold a vote on a bill to establish a right to abortion through a full term in every state.
“We are focused like a laser on getting this vote shortly and on the 2022 elections,” Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said this week. But here, too, Democrats face limits — a 60-vote threshold for such legislation with an evenly split Senate.
Biden has urged senators to codify Roe, but a bill to guarantee sweeping abortion rights was filibustered once in February and appears doomed to fail again — and not just because of the filibuster.
The Women’s Health Protection Act has the support of only 48 or 49 senators, opposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) as well as abortion rights supporters Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA) has not said if he will support it. A rare anti-abortion Democrat, Casey has voted in the past for legislation to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but he did not join Manchin in filibustering the February bill.
Though a pared-down bill could help bring Murkowski and Collins aboard, it will run headlong into the Senate’s filibuster rule, which Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) say they plan to uphold.
Democrats see the threat to constitutionally guaranteed abortion rights as galvanizing the base in the midterm elections, but uncertainty around the issue could also complicate the White House’s response. The draft opinion is not a final Supreme Court decision.
“That is a big question mark because we don’t know yet,” said Michael Stratton, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It is a challenge for the Democrats and the White House to try and figure out what they’re going to do right now.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, insisted that the president “was not going to prejudge or have a comment on an opinion that has not yet been issued.”
In a rush poll from Politico/Morning Consult after the leak, registered voters ranked women’s issues, including abortion, fifth of seven in a list of electoral priorities at 8%. Most important were economic issues, at 41%, trailed by security issues, including foreign policy and the border, at a distant 16%.
About 1 in 5 Democratic women cited women’s issues, including abortion, as most important to them, 18%, compared to lean-Democratic women, 14%, and independent women, 13%. Ten percent of women who named it a foremost concern did not cast a ballot in 2016, according to the poll.
“This will energize Democrats and younger voters,” who favor abortion rights by 91% and 71%, respectively, said Democratic strategist Celinda Lake.
“It will also be persuasive to swing independent, college, suburban, baby boomer women who remember when abortion was illegal and younger women who fear for birth control and abortion,” said Lake, one of two lead pollsters for the Biden campaign in 2020 and a pollster to the Democratic National Committee.
When Lake’s firm surveyed 1,000 women about Roe last year, 43% said overruling the 1973 decision would make them more likely to vote in 2022, according to Cate Gormley, a vice president at Lake Research. Among Democratic women, that number rises to 54%, compared to 39% of Republican women. At the time of the poll, only 26% believed Roe would be struck down.
The leaked opinion comes at a critical time for Democrats as Biden and party leaders search for a message that will mobilize young voters and stanch losses with suburban women. With this in mind, some intend to use the court’s decision to bring out voters in November.
“This is an extremely important issue for young voters, voters of color, and suburban women — all people we need to turn out this November,” said a Democratic aide. “Voters are going to hear about it.”
Some suggest the issue could be decisive. One Democrat pointed to an analysis of abortion attitudes influencing the 1992 presidential election. The country elected Bill Clinton, who crystallized his position with the message that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
The stance marked an “evolution,” his longtime aide, Betsey Wright, said at the time, and a turn from when the former Arkansas governor wrote in 1986, “I am opposed to abortion.”
Polls show that most people support abortion being legal at least sometimes but with limits. According to a Gallup survey last year, 48% of people believed abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.
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Stratton said this weakens abortion rights enthusiasm.
“How long after conception can you get an abortion?” he said. “On all of those different terms — first term, second term, third term — people who are pro-choice get off the boat.”
The issue could also elicit enthusiasm from the side.
According to the Politico/Morning Consult poll, voters who believed Roe should be overturned were significantly more enthusiastic about the November election. Four days after the news, Republicans still held a 3.8-percentage-point advantage over Democrats in the RealClearPolitics generic ballot average.