9 min read

Three takeaways from Biden’s abortion speech

Biden is going all-in on abortion as November approaches — and belatedly realizing that young voters are his key to victory.
Three takeaways from Biden’s abortion speech
Good morning! It’s Wednesday, October 19, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 20 days away. Election Day 2024 is 748 days away.

Inside the room with Biden as he turns focus to abortion, young voters

On Tuesday, shortly after writing about how a clear majority of Americans view the economy as this election’s most important issue, I hopped in an Uber across town to watch President Biden try and change their minds.

Here are my inside-the-room takeaways from Biden’s address:

1️⃣ Democrats are going all-in on abortion

This much was clear before Biden even stepped in the room, from the oversized “Restore Roe” banner that hung behind the lectern and the “Defend Choice” signs attendees were clutching to.

By the time he got there, Biden’s team had already leaked out the main headline of the speech: The president would promise that, if Democrats maintain control of Congress, the first piece of legislation they will pass next year will be to codify Roe v. Wade and protect abortion rights.

“Together, we’ll restore the right to choose for every woman in every state in America,” Biden said, “So, vote. You got to get out the vote. We can do this if we vote.”

Biden expressed confidence that anger over the Dobbs decision, which struck down Roe, would fuel Democratic gains next month. “Just take a look at what happened in Kansas,” he said, referring to an August vote in the lead-red state to bolster abortion rights. “And come this November, we’re going to see what happens all over America, God willing.”

But not all Democrats are so confident of that, especially seeing as polls keep coming out that show Americans prioritizing other issues. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll released this morning, for example, voters placed abortion behind the economy, inflation, and crime in terms of importance — and said they trust Republicans more to handle all three. (The White House says it’s “not an either/or,” noting that Biden will address the economy today.)

Some within Biden’s party also take issue with his rhetoric on abortion as the midterm campaign winds down. “President Biden spoke today as if this issue is a simple one, when for many voters it is not simple,” Michael Wear, the faith outreach director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, told me in a text message Tuesday.

Wear called this posture “bewildering,” considering that Biden has long emphasized the complexity of abortion and spoken about his personal discomfort with it.

Here’s more from Wear, who I think brings an interesting perspective to the issue:

“He opened today’s speech referencing that he was a 30-year old Senator when the Roe decision was handed down... His speech today would have been more effective, more true to the sweep of his career, had he used it to acknowledge that when he was a 30-year old Senator, and for most of his career since then, he had refused to grandstand on this issue and pretend like it was incomprehensible to have had mixed feelings when Roe was decided and when Dobbs was decided... Now, with this speech, he’s pressured American voters into the very kind of stridency that he so profoundly resisted for decades of his career.”

After the speech, I caught up with Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, the local OBGYN who introduced Biden on Tuesday, an experience she called “surreal.” Villavicencio spoke in her introduction about her evolution from being pro-life to now providing abortions. Like Wear, she also told me politicians too often make abortion out to be a much simpler issue than how voters see it:

“I think the false binary that politicians force us into — pro-choice and pro-life or pro-choice and anti-choice — is really one that doesn’t resonate with folks. Everybody understands that this is a complex isssue... And so leaning into that complexity and understanding that you can both be uncomfortable in some ways with abortion, but also want to support people in being able to access that care, I hope that people can feel that.”

I asked her if Democrats were doing enough to make that clear to voters. “I think that we can always do better,” she told me.

President Biden during his abortion speech on Tuesday. (Gabe Fleisher)

2️⃣ Biden knows he needs the youths

For a speech that wasn’t marketed as having any age-related focus, I was struck by the fact that Biden spent almost half of his 10 minutes on stage speaking directly to young Americans.

Biden, 79, offered something of a paean to the generation decades his junior — which he called the “best educated, most talented, least prejudiced generation in American history” — and almost pleaded with them to stick with him.

“In 2020, you voted and delivered the change you wanted to see in the world,” the president said. “In 2022, you need to exercise your power to vote again for the future of our nation and the future of your generation.”

That plea is an overdue recognition that Generation Z might just hold the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda — things like his promise to codify Roe — in their hands.

For much of Biden’s presidency, his approval rating has been downright anemic among young voters, normally a reliable Democratic constituency. (I’m talking 1%-strongly-approve anemic.) His approval has gone up somewhat, but this week’s New York Times/Siena poll still showed just 52% of likely 18- to 29-year-old voters planning to back Democrats in November, compared to 40% backing Republicans.

If Democrats don’t nudge their support among the demographic back closer to 60% (where it was for Biden in 2020), it will be almost impossible for them to maintain control of Congress.

Johnathan Betancourt, a 22-year-old congressional intern who attended Biden’s speech, told me after that Democrats are doing just an “okay job” reaching out to his peers. “They’ve done a lot,” he said. “It’s just that the messaging is not there. It’s not being shown to the public.”

At age 16, Sela Zolavito isn’t quite old enough to vote, but she is a politically active student who also attended Biden’s speech. (She was in a small group who met the president afterward; “No serious boys until 30,” she said he told her.)

Zolavito said Biden’s speech showed that he “respects the voice” of young voters, “doesn’t look down upon them and he knows that they’re the only way that he’s gonna get what he wants done.”

“Like, young voters are gonna be our savior here,” she said.

Democrats desperately need young voters in November. (Fibonacci Blue)

3️⃣ Location is everything

Two fun facts about the Howard Theatre, where I saw Biden speak on Tuesday: 1) It was the first major Black-owned theater in the country. 2) It’s not located in Pennsylvania. Or Georgia. Or Arizona. Or Nevada.

Instead, it’s about two miles from the White House. I couldn’t help but note that, just three weeks before Election Day, the president was delivering a major campaign speech — announcing his party’s landmark promise for the cycle — from his backyard, instead of from a battleground state.

He could have flown to one of those states, clasped hands with a Democratic Senate candidate, and heralded them as the senator who would provide the pivotal 50th (er, 52nd) vote to make good on his promise of codifying abortion rights.

Except for the fact that Biden isn’t welcome in many of those states: With his approval rating still underwater, many key Democratic candidates have declined to invite Biden to appear with them (instead opting for surrogates like his wife Jill).

As a result, his campaign travel has been notably lighter than his predecessors: per Bloomberg, in the equivalent week before the 2010 and 2018 midterms, former Presidents Obama and Trump held political events in three and four states, respectively. Biden is hitting just one: Pennsylvania.

For me, standing in the back of a D.C. theater largely surrounded by Democratic Hill staffers who were already guaranteed to vote blue in November, the speech partially served as a stark reminder of how many Democratic candidates don’t want to be seen with their party’s leader.

The Democratic National Committee, which hosted the event, did not respond to a request for comment asking about the speech location.

🚨 More news you should know

➞ House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview that a House GOP majority will be less willing to approve aid for Ukraine. “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” he told Punchbowl News.

➞ Special counsel John Durham, who was appointed during the Trump administration to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, suffered his second loss in court on Tuesday. A jury acquitted Russian researcher Igor Danchenko, a key source for the “Steele dossier,” whom Durham had accused of lying to the FBI.

Other important stories from around the globe:

  • The Guardian: “Iranian schoolgirl ‘beaten to death for refusing to sing’ pro-regime anthem”
  • AP: “Saudis sentence US citizen to 16 years over tweets”
  • NYT: “German Cyber Chief Removed Over Claims of Ties to Russia”
  • The Hill: “US warned to get ready as Europe deals with new COVID-19 rise”

And here’s a number to wrap your head around:

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (10:45 am), have lunch with Vice President Harris (12:15 pm), deliver remarks on energy security (1:15 pm), and deliver remarks on the bipartisan infrastructure law (3 pm).

  • 🛢️ More details: During his energy security speech, Biden will announce plans to release 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in December. The White House hopes the release will bring down gas prices, as OPEC+ slashes oil production and the European Union prepares for its partial Russian oil ban to go into effect on December 5.

First Lady Biden will deliver remarks at an event hosted by Communities In School, a non-profit that calls itself “the largest, most effective dropout prevention organization” in the country (11:15 am). Later, she’ll visit the Democratic National Committee headquarters to thank staff and volunteers (5 pm).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing (12:15 pm).

Legislative Branch

The House and Senate are on recess.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will not meet today.

Campaign Trail

Oregon gubernatorial candidates Tina Kotek (D), Christine Drazan (R), and Betsy Johnson (I) will face off for their final debate (10 pm). Plus, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) and challenger Joy Hofmeister (D) will face off for their only debate (6:30 pm).

  • 🗳 Context: Both gubernatorial races have become surprisingly competitive, Oregon because of Johnson’s third-party presence in the race and Oklahoma because of Stitt’s unpopularity (especially among tribal leaders). Drazan is currently up by 3% in the polling average; she would be the first Republican since 1982 to win Oregon’s governorship. Hofmeister is currently down by 1%; she would be the first Democrat since 2006 to win Oklahoma’s governorship.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s something cool: The first U.S. currency to feature an Asian American is about to go into circulation.

The U.S. Mint announced that the fifth coin in its American Women Quarters program will feature Anna May Wong, a groundbreaking film actress who became known as the first major Chinese American Hollywood star in the 1920s and 30s.

Other women who have been featured as part of the series include poet Maya Angelou and astronaut Sally Ride. (Their likenesses appear on the reverse side of the coin; George Washington remains on the obverse.)

The Wong coin — seen below — will go into circulation this coming Monday.

(U.S. Mint)

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Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe