Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones is the founder and a board member at Dream Corps, a national nonprofit organization working at the intersection of criminal justice reform, green economics and tech equity. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
This month’s poll numbers are finally reflecting the heavy sighs and shrugged shoulders that are evident in Black church pews, nail salons and barber shops across America. African American voters are going through a season of heartbreak, frustration and disappointment with the Biden administration.
According to CNN’s poll, “Among people of color, 45% now approve of Biden’s overall performance, down from 54% in the spring. That decline includes a 6-point dip among Black adults and a 9-point decline among Hispanic adults.”
A big part of the problem is soaring inflation. The Black community is being absolutely pummeled economically – bearing the brunt of the soaring gas, food and housing prices. It’s no wonder only 34% of Black voters in the CNN poll said they approved of Biden’s handling of inflation.
Of course, whenever inflation is bad, the party in power is going to struggle to contain it. But Black disappointment goes deeper than concerns about rising costs. African Americans came out in big numbers in 2018 and 2020. Yet, in 2022, there is a widespread feeling that the Democrats have over-promised and under-delivered for Black voters.
The irony is that the Biden-Harris administration has delivered real victories for the American people over the past 18 months. Biden signed into law a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a Covid-19 relief package and a gun reform measure. Runaway inflation is hurting everyone. But under Biden, unemployment is way down and job creation in many sectors is way up.
Real progress for African Americans
Fortunately, the administration’s supporters can point to tangible issues on which the new administration has delivered for the Black community specifically. They have to do a better job of getting the word out.
Since he took office, President Joe Biden delivered a historic $5.8 billion cumulative investment in and support for historically Black colleges and universities. He signed into law the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act (after Congress had previously failed to pass it numerous times). And just this past May, Biden stopped waiting for congressional action and signed an executive order to improve police accountability and criminal justice practices.
Biden’s Justice Department is also back on the case. It is pursuing consent decrees to fix police departments, after former President Donald Trump’s administration curbed that strategy. The Justice Department has also reversed a Trump-era policy that required federal prosecutors to charge the harshest penalties. And Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, has been aggressive in restoring energy and honor to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Biden has also used his presidency to expand opportunity at the highest levels. He has the most diverse Cabinet in history – including the first woman of color vice president. In less than two years, Biden has appointed more Black women to the US Court of Appeals than any president in history – including those who were president for eight years. And he appointed the first Black woman to the US Supreme Court.
All of this is to be celebrated, but these achievements alone won’t win back Black voters who feel the Biden administration has fallen short on other political fronts.
Black voters remain disappointed
The problem is that Democrats promised or hinted at so many more improvements for Black America: voting rights protections, major police reform, even potential reparations for slavery. None of these issues has been successfully addressed.
Meanwhile some see Democrats’ swift action to pour billions into Ukraine, protect Asian Americans from hate crimes and codify the freedom to marry – and they wish the administration showed equal urgency and efficacy in addressing issues directly impacting the Black community.
Politics is a game of expectations. A more sober (or cynical) politician would have recognized more than a year ago that the most ambitious aspects of his agenda were effectively dead-on-arrival. Accepting the reality of a 50-50 Senate, that kind of leader would have started pumping the brakes – publicly and loudly – to reset expectations.
Biden could have said early on: “With this one-vote margin, it will be hard to get much done. I will focus my fire on a few key things. To get those passed, I will need massive help from the American people. But to fulfill the mission, I will need a bigger majority after the midterms.” Had he done that, his present track record might have seemed miraculous.
But Biden couldn’t do that. He deeply believes that America is a place where many things are still possible on a bipartisan basis. In nearly every speech, he asserts some variation of: “There’s not a damn thing this country can’t do when we stand united and do it together.”
His undying optimism about America is his calling card. Ironically, the President’s most appealing characteristic may actually be handicapping him now. While he should maintain his sense of optimism, he is going to have to get real about energizing the Black voter base.
Three things Democrats can do
It will be very hard to right the ship between now and the midterms. But between now and 2024, Biden and his party will have opportunities to bring Black voters back home.
1. Engage Black media.
The White House press office should treat these polling numbers like an emergency wake-up call. The administration needs to give Black media outlets and influencers like April Ryan, Roland Martin, Rickey Smiley, Charlamagne Tha God, Steve Harvey and others much more access. And the Democratic Party itself should be flooding Black outlets with paid ads and interviews, promoting the good that the administration is doing.
The White House would be smart to elevate Kristen Clarke and turn her into a household name. After all, the one thing an administration can do is prioritize the importance of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. And with Clarke at the helm, Biden is doing just that.
2. Invest in the grassroots.
All too often, the Democratic Party and its various funding mechanisms wait until the last minute to dump money into the Black community, trying to juice voter turnout. But with the headwinds that the party is facing, now is the time to start investing millions more dollars into grassroots organizations that can help turn out the Black vote. Some Black voters may never get excited about Biden or the Democratic Party at large, but they can still be engaged in state and local elections that might bring them to the polls anyway.
3. Capitalize on GOP and SCOTUS overreach.
If the Republicans take back Congress in the midterms, they are bound to introduce bills that will upset many voters of color, including policies that promote mass incarceration, hurt immigrants, and more. This will remind disappointed Democrats how much they actually have to fear from the extremists who wield too much influence inside the GOP today.
And it won’t just be congressional Republicans reminding Black voters of the dangers of extremism. Now that Roe has been overturned, affirmative action is next on the high court’s docket this fall. And this court appears likely to be hostile to racial justice remedies.
In short, at risk are all of the diversity measures that many African American families and businesses depend upon to counter bias and level the playing field. Just as the erasure of Roe will likely galvanize many female voters, a post-affirmative action Black America will have to fight to have a Congress and a president who will use every remaining lever of power to extend opportunity to all Americans.
That said, there are no easy answers – especially with inflation and the increasing costs of living. Their razor thin congressional majority has put the Democrats in the worst of all possible worlds. They have just enough votes in Congress to be blamed for almost everything. But they don’t have enough votes to change much of anything.
The Democrats are in power. But they are not in charge.
Under Trump, Democrats had very deep fears – many of which were realized. Under Biden, Democrats had very high hopes – few of which have been realized. Black voters understand that Biden’s majority in Congress is paper thin. But they still want more.
And Biden still has time between now and 2024 to be honest about what is possible – and deliver.