President Biden was thrown a lifeline this week with a chance to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court, giving him a chance to make up for a string of unfulfilled promises on the racial justice front.
Civil rights activists’ patience has been wearing thin with Mr. Biden after his push to overhaul the criminal justice system and rework federal election laws petered out on Capitol Hill.
Black voters had high hopes for Mr. Biden after helping power him and Vice President Kamala Harris into the White House and Democrats to slim majorities in the House and Senate.
“This is an opportune moment for the president,” said Nina Turner, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a liberal activist. “This is an opportunity for the president to show that he gets the needs of the hour and, especially when it comes to criminal justice reform, the opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice who understands the liberation struggle, the contours of what justice really means.”
The mounting frustration with Mr. Biden surfaced in a Pew Research poll released this week showing he started his second year in office with a dented image and an approval rating on the decline.
Mr. Biden’s approval rating is at 41%. Among Black voters, his approval rating has slid to 60% after coming in at 67% in September and 87% in July.
He has tried to deliver change through the Justice Department, which has banned police chokeholds, restricted no-knock warrants, stopped using private prisons and opened investigations into police misconduct in four cities.
The Justice Department also ruled that some federal inmates released to home confinement in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus could stay out of prison.
The White House has had little wiggle room in Congress with scant Republican support and rifts among Democrats despite a legislative wish list that animates liberal activists.
Yvette Simpson, chief executive officer of the liberal group Democracy for America, said the left felt that Mr. Biden wasted a lot of time trying to reach a bipartisan consensus with Republicans. She said the court opening gives the president a chance to do something he has failed to do on other occasions: fulfill a promise.
“It gets him major wins among the Black Democratic establishment, the elite and Black female activist organizations,” she said. “I think the folks on the ground, the people who are still being deeply impacted by the pandemic, I don’t know if this moves them at all. They still think the system is broken.”
That level of disillusionment with the Biden administration grew in September after Senate negotiations collapsed over a sweeping overhaul of national policing policies. The bill was named after George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis in May 2020 while in police custody.
Lawmakers failed to find common ground on, among other things, restrictions on the use of force, the creation of a national database to track police misconduct and stripping police of qualified immunity, the legal principle that shields public officials from lawsuits over their actions in the line of duty.
Mr. Biden faced another embarrassing setback this month after he failed to persuade Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia to join the rest of the Democratic conference in voting to scrap the legislative filibuster, which would have allowed them to pass sweeping changes to federal election laws in a party-line vote.
Democrats said the changes are necessary to counter Republican-led state legislation, such as voter ID requirements for polling places and limiting mail-in ballots. Mr. Biden said these laws were intended to disenfranchise Black voters.
Mr. Biden delivered a fiery speech in Atlanta this month in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the legislation.
Activists said it was too little, too late.
With no clear path on either front, speculation swirled about whether Mr. Biden would be able to deliver on any more of his high-profile campaign promises before the midterm elections, which historically have been tough on the president’s party.
Opportunity knocked with the news of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s impending exit from the Supreme Court.
Mr. Biden on Thursday formally announced Mr. Breyer’s retirement. He praised the liberal justice and vowed to follow through on his pledge to nominate a Black woman to replace him.
“I’ve made no decision except one: The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character experience and integrity,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue, in my view. I made that commitment during my campaign for president, and I will keep that commitment.”
Knowing their fragile majority is under threat in the November elections, Senate Democrats have vowed a swift process to ensure Mr. Biden can get his successor confirmed.
With the 100-member Senate evenly split between the parties, Democrats retain control only because of Ms. Harris’ tiebreaking vote as the presiding officer in the chamber.
Democrats will be able to confirm Mr. Breyer’s successor without any Republican support thanks to a Senate rule change that allows for Supreme Court justices to be confirmed with a simple majority vote.
Democrats in that scenario would need all 50 members of their conference to stick together, giving Ms. Harris the chance to break the tie if Republicans are unified in opposition.
Ms. Simpson said Mr. Biden should do more to engage with community organizers and activists outside the Capital Beltway who have been fighting for years in the trenches for criminal justice and electoral changes.
She also said Mr. Biden should expand his use of executive powers to deliver change.
“You are still the leader of the free world the last time we checked,” Ms. Simpson said.
Ms. Turner said the Supreme Court opening is not the end-all-be-all for Mr. Biden.
“You can’t just ride this wave,” she said. “You have to pass the George Floyd bill and voting rights. It is not an either/or proposition; it is a both/and.”