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Why Biden gave a speech about abortion rights

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden made a full-throated plea to young voters today, urging them to cast ballots in the upcoming midterm elections and promising that if Democrats win Congress, they will enshrine into law the right to an abortion. It's something that Democrats have elevated as a central issue since the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let me tell you something. The court and the extreme Republicans who have spent decades trying to overturn Roe are about to find out.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: As they say in one of the towns I grew up, they ain't seen nothing yet.

CHANG: Biden was speaking at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black institution. And NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening in. She joins us now. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So abortion is something that Democrats have already been talking a lot about on the campaign trail. What struck you the most about Biden's remarks on abortion today?

LIASSON: What struck me is how directly he addressed the current worry for Democrats, which is their concern that the fervor over the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe is now subsiding. Twice in his speech, once near the beginning and again at the end, he invoked what he called, quote, "the anger, the worry, the disbelief" that Democrats felt when the Supreme Court ended the longstanding constitutional protection for abortion. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I'm asking the American people to remember how you felt, how you felt the day the extreme Dobbs decision came down and Roe was overturned after 50 years.

LIASSON: Yeah, remember how you felt. This was the moment that spurred a lot of new Democratic voters to register. And for a while, Democrats seemed energized because of the abortion issue. But now, there's a sense among Democrats that they might have peaked too soon. Biden wants to take people back to that moment when Democrats seemed to be successfully turning this election from a referendum on Biden and his performance in office into a choice between extremist Republicans and more moderate Democrats. Lately, it seems like some of that momentum has ebbed. And the issues that are now coming back to the fore are inflation and crime and immigration, where Republicans have big advantages. And also, don't forget, it was no accident that he went to Howard because in his audience were two important constituencies for Democrats, young voters and African American voters.

CHANG: OK. Well, with respect to the issue of abortion, I understand that President Biden made a couple of promises in his speech. Let's take a listen to the first promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: If Republicans get their way with a national ban, it won't matter where you live in America. So let me be very clear. If such a bill were to pass in the next several years, I'll veto it.

(APPLAUSE)

CHANG: I mean, Mara, what did you make of that argument - I'll just veto it?

LIASSON: That struck me as very odd. If you are trying to revive the importance of abortion as a motivating issue for Democratic voters, that sounds counterproductive...

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: ...Saying that, don't worry, if Republicans pass a nationwide ban, I'll veto it. You have nothing to worry about. If the whole point is to scare the daylights out of Democratic voters and get them to the polls, that doesn't sound like a really good way to do it.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. So what did you make of the other promise that President Biden made today - if Democrats take the House and Senate, they will pass a law to codify Roe v. Wade in January?

LIASSON: That would be very popular. You know, polls show about two-thirds of voters want abortion to be legal up to a point, with exceptions and restrictions. Roe is a kind of middle ground. And the problem is for Democrats, when they put these bills up, the reason why it failed recently in the Senate is they often go further than merely codifying the protections in Roe. But yes, a bill to just codify Roe, that would be very popular.

CHANG: And we should know that Biden - I mean, he spoke very directly to young voters in this speech. Can you explain why young voters are such an important part of the Democratic strategy for the midterms?

LIASSON: Young voters just don't turn out as much for midterm elections, and Democrats want them to go to the polls. Biden talked about how critical young voters were to his own victory in 2020. He listed all the things he's done that are priorities for young voters, like climate initiatives and the Inflation Reduction Act, gun safety laws, forgiving up to $20,000 of student debt. So far, 12 million people have applied for that, including 4 million yesterday. He also reminded them that he kept a promise to pardon people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. The big question is, will that actually motivate young voters to go to the polls or is voter behavior just driven so much by negative partisanship, the only reason they go to the polls is to vote against the other side?

CHANG: That is NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Roberta Rampton is NPR's White House editor. She joined the Washington Desk in October 2019 after spending more than six years as a White House correspondent for Reuters. Rampton traveled around America and to more than 20 countries covering President Trump, President Obama and their vice presidents, reporting on a broad range of political, economic and foreign policy topics. Earlier in her career, Rampton covered energy and agriculture policy.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.