(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden delivered a sermon on Sunday at Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, testing out themes he’ll need to drive turnout of Black voters in his expected 2024 re-election campaign.
Georgia, which helped put Biden in the White House in 2020, remains a key battleground state. Biden was invited to speak by the church’s senior pastor, Senator Raphael Warnock, who was re-elected in November after keeping the president and his moribund approval rating at arm’s length during the campaign.
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“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but this is intimidating. Y’all are incredible,” Biden joked to the congregation, which included Christine King Farris, the 95-year-old sister of the late civil rights leader.
With Biden planning to seek re-election — and Warnock not set to face voters again for six years — the political calculus has changed. Instead of potentially weighing down Warnock’s re-election prospects, the president will now depend on the senator and Black voters in Georgia to return him to the White House.
Warnock said that while former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama visited the church, Biden is the first sitting president to deliver the Sunday sermon. He spoke the day before the US Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“I believe Dr. King’s life and legacy show us the way, and we should pay attention,” Biden said.
“At our best, the American promise wins out. At our best, we hear and heed the injunctions of the Lord and the whispers of the angels,” Biden said. “But I don’t need to tell you that we’re not always at our best. We’re fallible. We fail and fall. But faith and history teach us that however dark the night, joy cometh in the morning.”
A razor-thin margin of victory in Georgia in 2020 — fueled by support from Black voters — helped Biden defeat former President Donald Trump, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in nearly three decades. Black people account for nearly half of the 1.9 million increase in Georgia’s eligible voter population between 2000 and 2019, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
In 2019, the Black voting population in Georgia reached a record of 2.5 million eligible voters, making up a third of the state’s electorate, Pew found. A CBS exit poll found that 88% of Georgia’s Black voters backed Biden over Trump in 2020.
Yet some Black Americans are frustrated with Biden’s progress on key issues, including voting rights and police reform. Some civil rights organizations in Georgia blasted Biden’s initial student loan forgiveness proposal as too stingy, before it was stalled by legal challenges.
“There are promises that have been left outstanding, and he would be better served to make good on those promises,” said Gerald Griggs, president of the nonpartisan Georgia NAACP, and an Atlanta civil rights attorney.
Biden’s approval ratings fell to 43% last year among Black voters, according to an October Morning Consult poll, only a slightly higher average than for voters overall.
Tammy Greer, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University, said Georgia’s Black voters still deeply support Biden, but how strongly they turn out in 2024 depends on whether he can clearly lay out his accomplishments.
Greer said court obstacles for his student loan program and the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, claiming credit for spending federal stimulus dollars have left some voters confused.
“It’s muddied the waters for Biden,” she said.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, a senior Biden adviser and former Atlanta mayor, defended Biden’s record on voting rights, saying he’s done as much as he can.
“The president has done and will continue to do all that he can do in his executive powers, but there’s only so much that he can do,” she told reporters Friday. “We need Congress to act.”
With Republicans in charge of the House, there is hardly any chance Democratic proposals to expand access to the ballot will make it into law before 2024.
Biden backed changes to the Democratic primary calendar that make South Carolina — where support from Black voters helped revive Biden’s then-flagging 2020 campaign — the first state to vote and move Georgia ahead of Super Tuesday.
The reshuffle will elevate Black voters’ impact in future races and could play in Biden’s favor in 2024.
“The Biden folks obviously think that Black voters continue to provide a strong base for the president,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant in Atlanta.
Before South Carolina’s primary in 2020, in which Biden placed first by a large margin, his campaign “was circling the drain, and they corked it,” Robinson said.
Warnock praised Biden on Sunday for the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2022 package of health-care, energy and climate initiatives, and other legislation passed during his presidency.
“That, my friends, is God’s work, and Georgia had a little something to do with it,” Warnock said.
Warnock won re-election in November over Republican challenger Hershel Walker in a tight race that went to a Dec. 6 runoff. His victory expanded Democrats’ narrow Senate majority to 51 seats.
Biden, whose approval rating was near 40% for much of 2022, avoided traveling to Georgia on Warnock’s behalf. Before the runoff, he instead flew to Boston to participate in a get-out-the-vote phone bank for the senator.
Warnock “never made a secret that he supported Joe Biden,” said Kevin Harris, former chief of staff for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “But, in the context of that campaign, he understood what it was about. It had to be about Raphael Warnock.”
The Democrat won despite a decline in Black turnout compared to the 2018 midterms and an increase in turnout among White voters, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning think tank at New York University.
—With assistance from Justin Sink and Josh Wingrove.
(Updates with Biden speech starting in third paragraph.)