Experts told CNN that Biden has a stake in pleasing activists and progressive Democrats urging him to champion abortion rights, as well as moderate Democrats or independents who may not agree with expanding access to the procedure.
“Biden has clearly not made abortion a priority, period,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and the author of “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present.”
“For Biden to talk about abortion, he either risks alienating Democratic primary voters who he needs to turn out in 2024 if he runs again — he needs those people to be excited and to show up — or he risks alienating independents and moderate Democrats who really kind of were the ones who propelled him successfully through the primary,” Ziegler said, adding that “it’s hard for him to strike a tone on abortion that would please all of those people.”
Douglas Brinkley, a CNN presidential historian and a professor of history at Rice University, characterized Biden during the campaign as having been “very brazen about (how he was) going to be the greatest president on women’s rights and the protection of Roe v. Wade that one could imagine. He spoke a very big game about it, but since he’s become president, he’s been mute.”
“But the problem with his strategy now is that states are running over Roe v. Wade,” Brinkley continued.
The White House said Biden opposes those laws but did not provide examples when pressed for instances of Biden articulating his opposition.
“President Biden continues to support the robust agenda he put forward during the campaign to protect women’s rights, including by codifying Roe v. Wade,” a White House spokesperson told CNN in a statement. “The President has also made clear his opposition to state laws that so blatantly violate Roe v. Wade, and he will continue to do so.”
Bumper year for state-level bans
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said that while Biden’s federal moves on abortion to date have prompted anti-abortion groups to dub him the most “pro-abortion” president, his silence on the state bans likely stems from his inability to act on them.
“He probably realizes he can’t do a lot about it in his position — these are state laws,” Tobias said. “Some of them will be challenged and they will go through the court system, but that’s not something the federal government is really going to impact, because the courts do allow the states to place some limits on abortion. But he’s using the federal government as much as he can.”
Different factions and competing interests
But abortion rights activists want Biden to go the extra mile on abortion access. Like other interest groups lobbying for gun control and immigration reform, they’re coming to collect after helping him win the White House.
In a call with reporters in January, Planned Parenthood President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson called rolling back the Mexico City Policy and the Title X abortion referral restriction “a great start, one that will increase access and meaningfully impact people’s lives. But I’ll emphasize again, this is a start.”
From a policy perspective, Planned Parenthood Action Fund Executive Director Kelley Robinson told CNN that Biden “has made some important strides and he’s done them early.”
“I will also say that in this particular moment, when we are seeing the worst attacks in a generation on sexual reproductive health and rights, particularly at the state level, there’s still more that we have to call him to do,” Robinson added, asserting that “at this point, he’s been an excellent supporter, but we need him to be a champion right now.”
It’s likely that the President will get no rest from abortion rights advocates within his own party.
“This is the role of supporters and advocacy organizations like ours, to make sure that he steps up to the plate and uses that bully pulpit to be as vocal as possible,” Robinson said.
But experts say Biden’s push to get his massive jobs package through Congress with bipartisan support could take priority over abortion rights.
“Not assailing state legislatures that are promoting this assault on Roe v. Wade is not a sign that he supports them at all, but that he’s picking his fights,” said Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor of public service at New York University and a CNN presidential historian. “And he’s trying not to make it any easier for culture warriors to distract people from the gains they could get from Biden’s broad-based policies, economic and social policies.”
“There’s a feeling now that Biden doesn’t want the fight over Roe v. Wade right now, that it’s something to be kicked down the road that he can only lead on,” historian Brinkley said. “He’s having to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, getting the economy going and passing a $1.7 trillion jobs package, and those cultural issues like guns and women’s rights create havoc for a sitting president.”
Then and now
If the high court overhauls Roe with its decision in the Mississippi case next summer, Biden’s hand may be forced.
“If the Supreme Court goes there and Roe becomes front page news, Biden will have to take a very strong stance, but he doesn’t want to trip wire that issue over the summer of 2021 — he feels his dance card is too full,” historian Brinkley said, adding that “he’s betting that he has enough credentials in 2021 to stay out of that issue and see it as maybe a 2022 issue.”
A key element of that involvement rests in timing.
“I think there’s a fear (the Biden Administration has) that if they talk about expanding the Supreme Court or doing anything really bold on abortion rights, people will sort of see that as extreme and unnecessary as nothing has really happened yet,” Ziegler, the FSU law professor, said. “But if the Supreme Court were to do something out there on abortion, then I could definitely see the Biden administration using more political capital because they would see it as less risky to do so.”
But abortion rights advocates say that waiting to act until a direct attack on Roe would be too late, pointing to the litany of existing restrictions that already restrict access to pre-viability abortions in many states.
“We can’t wait until Roe is undermined and gutted,” Robinson said. “We have to have action now, and I don’t think it would be the calculus to wait until that point, because it’s now that we can do interventions that can actually stop or slow down this tide of attacks.”
Biden is in a unique position compared to his Democratic predecessors. Another major Supreme Court challenge, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upheld Roe in 1992 with a majority conservative bench just before President Bill Clinton was elected.
“There was no chance of Roe v. Wade being overturned in the 1990’s with Bill Clinton, and even during 2000 and 2009 with Obama,” Brinkley said.
“I remember one of the things that the Obama administration would say is, ‘We’re here, now make us do it,’ ” Robinson said. “And we in the advocacy movement really had to do some reflecting on how to make sure we were pushing that ally that we had in the Obama administration hard enough to be bold and make needed changes.”
A complicated personal stance
Biden’s shift on the Hyde amendment and his stance on abortion overall is also informed by his faith.
“Biden is remaining faithful to a typically 20th century political Catholic way of looking at this issue, which is, ‘There’s a distinction between what I personally believe and what I as a politician can do in politics for a multicultural multi-religious country,’ ” said Massimo Faggioli, a historical theology professor at Villanova University and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States.”
He added that Biden is “navigating a middle road, which is very lonely right now. It’s not typical to see people in public life making that argument, because it is complicated, but this is a very specifically Catholic and 20th century way to look at that.”
There are also questions over whether Biden has proverbially spent his progressive political capital on other issues already.
Robinson said she was optimistic seeing Biden “make positive statements, really kind of coming down on Texas and their attacks on voting rights — that was important. We need to see the same thing when it comes to essential health care.”
CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf and Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed to this report.