In South Carolina, Biden Tries to Persuade Black Voters to Reject Trump
Hoping to revitalize the momentum that propelled him to the White House, President Biden told a largely Black audience on Saturday night that “you’re the reason Donald Trump is a defeated former president,” in what was effectively his first appearance related to the Democratic primaries.
Mr. Biden made clear in his remarks at a South Carolina Democratic Party dinner in Columbia, S.C., that he viewed the forthcoming week as not just a contest but a pivotal moment to energize a frustrated base of Black voters across the nation. And in the run-up to the state’s Feb. 3 Democratic presidential primary, which the party’s national committee selected last year to be the first in the nation, Democrats believe they have entered an opportune time.
With former President Donald J. Trump having won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary for the Republican nomination, Mr. Biden’s allies plan to emphasize not just the president’s record but also the urgency of the moment: The general election effectively starts now, they say.
“He has made it known what he’s going to do if he gets back into office,” Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, said of Mr. Trump in an interview. “And to see that blooming as a possibility and see him running as well as he is in the polls, I’m concerned about it.”
“Do what you did before,” Mr. Clyburn said in an appeal to the Black electorate. “Turn that election around and save this democracy.”
The sense of urgency is rooted in rising concerns over polls showing Mr. Biden underperforming among Black voters in battleground states, particularly among men. Some Democrats are also concerned that the high death toll in Gaza resulting from Israel’s offensive against Hamas will fuel frustration among younger voters. Twice during Saturday’s event, protesters shouting criticism of the civilian casualties in Gaza were removed, as attendees chanted over them, “Four more years!”
Mr. Biden, who early in his presidency seldom called out the former president by name, grew animated at times while speaking about Mr. Trump, recalling how he had insulted veterans. Mr. Biden, whose age of 81 has prompted concerns among voters, also attempted to flip the script on the 77-year-old Mr. Trump. “Have you noticed he’s a little confused these days?” Mr. Biden asked, noting that Mr. Trump had recently mixed up former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, another candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
“You’re the reason Donald Trump is a loser,” Mr. Biden told the audience. “And you’re the reason we’re going to win and beat him again.”
For some local leaders, Mr. Biden needs to do more than just contrast himself with Mr. Trump. The president needs to communicate his slate of policy achievements to voters who had raised their expectations for substantial change when Mr. Biden was elected, those leaders say.
The Democratic primary in South Carolina is not expected to be competitive. Even so, the Biden campaign has homed in on the state for weeks, dispatching a flurry of high-level Democrats and organizers there and focusing an advertising blitz on policies that Democrats say have helped Black voters.
Clay Middleton, a senior adviser to the campaign in South Carolina, said that while Mr. Biden should not have “any problem” winning the state’s primary, this week presented an opportunity to send a message to the Black electorate in other battleground states. “The message is, we’re up next,” he said.
Fletcher N. Smith Jr., a former state representative in South Carolina who worked as a surrogate for the Biden campaign in 2007 and 2020, said that portraying the election as a choice between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump would not be enough to sway Black voters.
“There’s no excitement for his campaign,” Mr. Smith said. He is supporting Mr. Biden again this year but said that the president’s team needs to do a better job of communicating with local officials throughout the state. “All Biden and his team want to do in South Carolina is have a monologue and not a dialogue,” Mr. Smith said.
“Your problem is, you don’t know how to talk to Black people,” he added.
Just before attending the Democratic Party dinner, Mr. Biden, along with Mr. Clyburn — who had helped resurrect Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign — visited the Regal Lounge barbershop to speak directly with members of the community.
His allies say that the president must describe policies he has passed for Black Americans, including investing roughly $7 billion in historically Black colleges and universities, driving down Black unemployment and inflation and capping insulin prices. Mr. Clyburn elicited loud applause at the South Carolina Fairgrounds when he said that Mr. Biden had passed a bipartisan infrastructure package that would help overhaul an interchange of highways in the state known as “Malfunction Junction.”
But Brandon Brown, a former congressional candidate in South Carolina who had won Mr. Biden’s endorsement, said he was concerned that those policies would not satisfy voters who were looking for the administration to do more amid high housing prices and restrictions on abortion and voting rights.
“One of the challenges that particularly we face in South Carolina is, it’s a messaging issue,” Mr. Brown said. “You’ll hear more about what Donald Trump is talking about and focusing on than you’ll about what the president is doing.”
Mr. Biden did address some of those concerns on Saturday night. “Trump and his MAGA friends are determined to take away your freedoms,” he said, describing restrictions on voting and abortion. “I won’t let that happen.”
Many voters, Mr. Brown said, are also paying less attention to what Mr. Biden has done and more to what he proposed, including his plan to wipe out $400 billion in student debt. After that plan was blocked by the Supreme Court, however, the White House moved forward with a more targeted plan to forgive student debt.
“When you tell me that you got this basic program ready to go, and then you’ve got millions of people signing up, and then all of a sudden it’s taken out from under you,” voters become skeptical, Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Biden has so far forgiven more than $136 billion in student loans for nearly 3.7 million Americans, and he increased maximum Pell grants, a move that largely affected Black undergraduates. On Saturday Mr. Clyburn read a letter from an American who had been paying off debt for 25 years, before having the rest forgiven last fall.
“He’s kept his promise,” Mr. Clyburn said of Mr. Biden.
Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, told reporters before Mr. Biden’s remarks that by emphasizing those economic measures, as well as by stressing that the alternative choice would be Mr. Trump, the Biden campaign could turn the tide with Black voters.
“When voters see the clear contrast, they’ll recognize that President Biden is for the working class,” Mr. Khanna said.
Krista Greene, a native of Columbia now teaching high school in the city, has yet to be convinced. She still feels that Mr. Biden has not done enough to increase salaries for the working class, or to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza.
Ms. Greene, a registered Democrat, received a call recently from her friend who said it was time to rally behind Mr. Biden, given Mr. Trump’s recent wins in New Hampshire and Iowa. “I’m not there yet,” Ms. Greene said.
“I just wish we had better options,” she said in an interview. “This is crazy.”