The Biden administration’s halting response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, along with an inflammatory criticism by a senior White House official over the weekend, has angered some of the very people that President Joe Biden hopes will stir up voters ahead of the midterms—and even a few of the people who are supposed to support those efforts with their wallets.
“Furious,” texted one Biden bundler for whom abortion is a key issue, when asked about the mood of like-minded financial supporters of the president. “The statement was just so unnecessarily disrespectful of people who helped elect him, truly.”
“We are experts at at what we do and what it takes to get an abortion in this country,” said Morgan Hopkins, the interim executive director of campaigns and strategies at All* Above All, an abortion-rights group, who pointed out that it was activists who pushed Biden to reverse his opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding going to abortion services. “We have a political organization, we know the importance of voting, and people across this country know the importance of voting, and we need the boldest of action from the White House.”
“I will not take being called an activist as an insult,” Hopkins said. “Activism works.”
The statement in question—in which outgoing White House communications director and longtime Biden media guru Kate Bedingfield declared that the president’s “goal” was not to “satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party”—incensed abortion rights advocates when it was first published in The Washington Post on Saturday.
“People around the country are rightfully terrified and seeking leadership that is bold and effective,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, which recently joined 18 other civil rights groups to demand a meeting with Biden to discuss concrete steps to protect abortion access. “Advocates around the country are pushing every leader to do more, and that must include the White House.”
But while Biden and his team have long since grown accustomed to public displays of frustration from activists on issues ranging from immigration to LGBTQ rights, some told The Daily Beast that this latest slight risks discouraging those groups from coordinating with the White House going forward—with the razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress at stake.
“We have never depended on Biden to get abortions—when he was vice president or now,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization that represents those who have had abortions. “The question is whether he’s ready to plug into the organizing that’s happening with or without his administration.”
In the weeks after the initial leak of a draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that found ruled that the ability to end a pregnancy was a constitutional right, the Biden administration pledged to pursue a “whole-of-government” response to any potential threat to abortion access. But once the decision was finally released on June 24, that plan has primarily focused on encouraging Democrats to vote more abortion supporters into office in order to codify Roe into law.
“The only way we can secure a woman’s right to choose and the balance that existed is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law,” Biden said hours after the Dobbs decision was released, noting that as president, he was powerless to do so himself. “Voters need to make their voices heard. This fall, we must elect more senators and representatives who will codify a woman’s right to choose into federal law once again.”
That is a tall order ahead of midterm elections in which the Democratic Party is on track to lose its majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate—and the kind of plan that requires working hand-in-hand with advocates and activists who have decades of experience mobilizing voters who support abortion access.
Abortion-rights advocates say there’s no chance that they will walk away from the work they’ve done for decades because of one pissy statement. But the Biden administration’s “vote, vote vote” message, to them, feels like an abdication of authority—to say nothing of the White House’s rejection of proposals like expanding the Supreme Court, building abortion clinics on federal lands and declaring a national public-health emergency.
“We’ll continue doing what we’ve always done for the past decade: getting people to the abortions they need and organizing our communities,” said Sherman. “But the president cannot continue to say that he’s doing everything he can to support abortion when he had to be begged to say the word and is installing a lifetime of barriers in the judicial system.”
The feeling of disengagement from Biden, if not from the midterm elections entirely, has also percolated up to the donor space, according to three high-dollar bundlers from the 2020 presidential campaign. The White House’s cautious response to Dobbs, one of the bundlers said, won’t singlehandedly push donors to ditch Democrats—but combined with Biden’s poor polling and the gloomy outlook for his domestic agenda, is not exactly making the case for doubling down on investing in Biden’s political future.
“When you’re a fundraiser and you’re reaching out to your network on a candidate’s behalf, you need to believe in that candidate and his/her mission,” one bundler said. “It’s hard to even see the mission right now, much less put your faith in it.”
Negative feelings about the administration’s handling of any issue, another noted, makes fundraising more difficult—even if the president’s biggest bundlers are still stalwart supporters.
“Nobody who stayed Team Biden during Iowa-New Hampshire-Nevada is going to ditch him over this,” they said. “But the parvenus who came onboard once he got the nomination are fickle almost by definition.”
Across the board, bundlers and activists noted that with the Senate filibuster intact and the Supreme Court’s makeup set for years, the decks are largely stacked against major executive action. Biden has also issued executive orders directing his administration to help increase access to abortion medication, as well as promising to fight state laws that could criminalize crossing state lines to obtain an abortion.
“They have taken important steps,” Goss Graves said. “The executive order was important, the materials the agencies are releasing this week have provided critical clarity, but the work is not done.”
But that work will require working together, said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who said that her organization is “committed” to working with the Biden administration on abortion protections.
“We recognize that there are limits to what the Biden administration can do to remedy the chaos caused by this decision,” said McGill Johnson. “People expect actions from elected officials at all levels of government—including the president—that not only affirm, but protect their right to abortion and freedom to make decisions about their own bodies and futures.”