The muted response from the White House following the July 4 mass shooting at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois has intensified frustration felt by progressives over the Biden administration’s approach to the crises facing the United States, coming less than two weeks after the Supreme Court gutted abortion rights for millions of Americans.
At an Independence Day barbeque on Monday, President Joe Biden briefly mentioned the shooting which killed seven people, injured 46 others, and left a toddler orphaned, telling the crowd, “We’ve got to get this under control.”
He later added in a longer statement, “There is much more work to do.”
In contrast, Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker took aim directly at lawmakers who have obstructed far-reaching gun control legislation that would include bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background check requirements for gun purchases.
“If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” Pritzker said. “Our founders carried muskets, not assault weapons. And I don’t think a single one of them would have said you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high capacity magazine—or that that is more important than the right of the people who attended this parade today to live.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both called on Congress to go further than the bipartisan gun control package that was passed late last month, but progressives expressed dissatisfaction with the White House’s tone and commitment to making sure more significant progress is made, even as more than 30 mass shootings have taken place in the 11 days since the bill was signed into law.
“This is our time to dig in and be absolutely furious because these one-half measures are not working,” Camille Rivera, a Democratic strategist and partner at the progressive firm New Deal Strategies, told Politico. “Our rights are being infringed upon and then there were two shootings on the exact day that people are supposed to be celebrating their ‘independence.’ I really don’t understand where this passivity comes from in this situation.”
Progressive strategist Adam Jentleson expressed sympathy that with a razor-thin Senate majority and Republicans refusing to support far-reaching gun control reforms despite their popularity across the political spectrum, “there’s very little they can do legislatively” to restrict access to guns.
“But in moments of crisis, the president is called upon to be a leader,” Jentleson told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “And when people are feeling scared and angry and outraged, they look to him for that, and they’re not getting much.”
After the Highland Park shooting on Monday, Jentleson warned that because the Democratic Party was forced to negotiate with the GOP to finalize the gun control package instead of passing broadly popular reforms, the resulting law “gives Republicans cover on days like today.”
Biden has faced criticism for his inconsistent approach to calling for filibuster reform, which progressives including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have repeatedly demanded in order to pass legislation to protect voting rights, reproductive rights, and other key Democratic priorities. The president did not publicly mention filibuster reform as a method of codifying abortion rights into federal law until a week after Roe was overturned on June 24.
Since the ruling—a historic challenge to rights that the Democratic Party has vowed for decades to protect—the central message from Democratic leaders has focused on mobilizing voters to support the party in the November midterm elections, both with their votes and their donations.
Days after the decision was handed down and as protests erupted across the country, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) expressed empathy for a young woman who told NBC News that she’d received a text message from the Biden campaign saying it was her “responsibility to rush $15 to the Democratic National Party,” adding that reproductive rights “should not be a fundraising point” for the party, particularly if the White House won’t act to protect them.
“We have been sounding the alarm about this for a long time,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in response to the interview. “We simply cannot make promises, hector people to vote, and then refuse to use our full power when they do. We still have time to fix this and act. But we need to be brave.”
The fundraising push angered documentary filmmaker and climate justice advocate Josh Fox, who demanded the party’s leaders “roll up [their] sleeves and fight for us.”
As journalist Rebecca Traister noted in May after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote message regarding abortion rights and gun control is somewhat complicated by the fact that party leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) endorsed Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)—a forced-pregnancy proponent who opposes gun control—over progressive, pro-choice challenger Jessica Cisneros just weeks ago.
Ocasio-Cortez is among the progressive lawmakers who have called for filibuster reform, an expansion of the Supreme Court to counter the right-wing majority secured by former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and for the establishment of abortion clinics on federal lands to ensure people have access to care.
Harris said last week that the White House is not considering setting up abortion clinics on federal property, instead calling on voters to “change the balance” of Congress. The administration is also not considering a push to expand the Supreme Court.
Democratic leaders have been “basically [reduced] to begging for people to vote,” Aaron Chappell, political director of the grassroots group Our Revolution, told The Hill, but the party is offering “no clear plan, no promises of what those votes will translate to.”
Echoing Ocasio-Cortez, Slate on Wednesday outlined actions the Biden administration can take to protect abortion rights without the Senate and House, including establishing a “whole of government response” by directing every federal agency to take steps to ensure people have access to care; directing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to preempt abortion pill bans; and declaring a public health emergency.
Instead, tweeted Slate journalist Mark Joseph Stern on Tuesday, the White House’s response to the ruling—which promptly eliminated abortion rights in at least eight states—has amounted to “a total abdication of leadership on an issue that sits at the heart of the Democratic Party.”
“[Supreme Court Justice Samuel] Alito must be delighted,” Stern said. “He bet that Biden wouldn’t seriously push back against Dobbs, and he was right.”
Julia Conley is a staff writer for Common Dreams.