Joe Biden’s Most Potent Message Isn’t Reaching The Voters He’s Aiming For

President Joe Biden is a product of the American political system, a man who has spent all but the first handful of years of his adult life in federal office and, quite literally, credits the camaraderie of the 1970s U.S. Senate with saving his life. At some of the most high-stakes moments of his presidency — shortly before the 2022 midterms, at the start of his reelection year — he has traveled to historic spots to insist the system is worth saving.

On Sunday, however, Biden delivered a speech at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia, with a distinctly different aim: To convince an audience of young Black men their democracy was worth fighting for.

“It’s natural to wonder if democracy you hear about actually works for you. What is democracy if Black men are being killed in the street? What is democracy if a trail of broken promises still leave Black communities behind?” Biden said during the speech, later declaring: “That’s my commitment to you: To show you democracy, democracy, democracy is still the way.”

Biden went through a smattering of his administration’s accomplishments, from removing lead pipes and spreading high-speed internet access to student debt relief. He acknowledged the suffering in Gaza and reiterated his support for a cease-fire in the war between Hamas and Israel.

At the end of the speech, however, there was a clear divide: Morehouse’s alumni stood and applauded Biden’s speech while most students remained seated.

It was a vivid depiction of how Biden’s own faith in the system is dividing his coalition and how out of step he is with the voters — mostly young, often Black or Latino, often male — who backed him in 2020 and are thus far refusing to do so in 2024.

These voters view the system as broken, sometimes irreparably so, and are not buying into a message Biden’s campaign often considers their trump, or anti-Trump, card: That another Biden presidency would save a democracy in peril. If Biden wants to defeat Trump, he may need to find a way to convince these voters he wants to change the system as much as he wants to defend it.

President Joe Biden’s commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta aimed to convince its young and Black graduating class their democracy was worth defending.
President Joe Biden’s commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta aimed to convince its young and Black graduating class their democracy was worth defending. via Associated Press

“They think the system is rigged,” said Terrence Woodbury, the CEO of the Democratic polling firm HIT Strategies, of the voters abandoning Biden. “They think there’s way too much big money. They think it’s unfair that politicians get to choose their voters. They don’t want to defend a system that’s producing not just unequal outcomes, but outcomes that affect them negatively.”

Woodbury, who has conducted extensive focus groups with Black voters, was blunt about why Biden needed to adjust his message: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Black people want a different result from our democracy, and right now, we’re promising them the same results.”

While Biden’s desire to protect democracy has won him plaudits among the older, whiter and more politically engaged parts of his coalition, it has not inspired the same loyalty among its younger and more diverse parts, partially explaining why Biden is performing much better in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin than he is in the younger Sun Belt states of Nevada, Arizona and Georgia.

The tension within Biden’s coalition is longstanding, dating back to the divide in the 2020 Democratic primary, which saw a faceoff between Biden’s return-to-normalcy message and more left-leaning candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who promised more sweeping changes to American life.

Biden won the race and brought the progressives into his movement with specific policy promises. He’s delivered on many of them, fundamentally challenging 40 years of economic policy consensus on issues like trade, corporate consolidation and labor rights. But steering the ship of state is a slow process, and he’s received little credit for his transformative efforts amidst the war in Gaza and income-sapping inflation. 

A recent poll from The New York Times/Siena College captures Biden’s struggle: 55% majority of registered voters believe the American economic and political system needs “major changes,” compared to just 2% who see no need for change and 27% who want “minor changes.” A remaining 14% want the system “to be torn down entirely.”

Key elements of Biden’s coalition were more likely to want major change: Voters aged 18-29 want major change at a 62% rate, Black and Latino voters want it at a 61% rate. Older and white voters were less likely to see a need for major change.

When asked if Biden would deliver change, voters are skeptical: 32% of registered voters say nothing would change, and 39% say he would only deliver minor changes. Those percentages are higher among younger voters: 37% of voters aged 18-29 say nothing would change under Biden, and 48% say he would deliver only minor change.

On the other hand, voters are confident Trump would change things: 45% of voters say Trump would make major changes, 25% say he would tear down the system entirely, and just 4% say Trump wouldn’t change our nation’s economic and political systems at all.

The poll is not completely cut-and-dry: 51% of voters would prefer “a candidate who promises to bring Washington back to normal,” compared to 40% who would like “a candidate who promises to fundamentally change America.”

Biden’s allies seem happy with the binary choice they are presenting to voters: Trump will end American democracy, and Biden will keep it going. At the same time, they hope other Democratic messages, especially those showing Biden’s willingness to stand up to large and powerful interests like the pharmaceutical industry and grocery companies, can appeal to the establishment-skeptical parts of Biden’s 2020 coalition.

“The country shares Biden’s views on this, and they view it as relevant to their lives,” said a senior Biden adviser, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about strategy. “One of these candidates wants American democracy to be healthy, and another one of these people is pumping toxins into it.”

But for some Democrats, Biden seems to be repeating mistakes the party made while pitching its large-scale democracy reform bill, where they failed to emphasize the anti-corruption elements of the bill, which have bipartisan support from the public — limiting the power of lobbyists, restricting the role of money in the campaign and ending gerrymandering — and instead turned it into a partisan battle over voting rights. 

One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to criticize his party’s leader, noted that many younger voters have come to believe members of Congress regularly use insider knowledge to make a fortune on the stock market. As a senator, Biden refused to own stocks — and was subsequently one of the poorest members of the Senate — for this exact reason.

“The fact that the White House does not talk about this makes me want to pull all my hair out,” the strategist said. 

Indeed, on paper, Biden supports a whole suite of proposals to reform democracy, from expanding voting rights to nonpartisan redistricting to requiring more donor disclosure for nonprofit groups spending extensively on politics. 

“These are grievances the public has been bringing to us for years,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), retiring from Congress this year after leading the House’s efforts on the democracy reform bill. “I think his campaign and every campaign that cares about lifting up pro-democracy efforts should be pointing to specific remedies.” 

Asked directly if Biden needed to talk as much about reforming democracy as he does about defending it, Sarbanes was blunt: “Yes. Everybody benefits if we talk about the solutions, not just the threats.”