For Joe Biden, Bailing on Morehouse’s Commencement Was Never an Option

President Biden Delivers Howard University Commencement Address

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Even before the White House announced last month that President Joe Biden would deliver one of his two commencement speeches this graduation season at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the prestigious historically Black college was seeing signs of the same political unrest that was bubbling up at dozens of colleges and universities across the country.

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But Morehouse is no Columbia. There have been no massive pro-Palestinian encampments, no clashes between protesters and police in riot gear. The tension is there all the same, most of it a bare inch below the surface, and Democrats fear it may erupt this Sunday as Biden dons a graduation robe to address its student body.

Since the school and the White House announced on April 23 that Biden would be the school’s commencement speaker, faculty, and students have engaged in an intense debate over blemishes in Biden’s records—not just his handling of the conflict in Gaza and his critical posture toward pro-Palestinian student protestors, but also his policies related to mass incarcerations and policing. Put plainly: All of the reasons Biden’s poll numbers with Black voters—and their intersectional allies—are softening have come into focus in Atlanta, as Biden arrives for a marquee speech at a major HBCU. It’s a microcosm of the fracturing coalition that put Biden in power in 2020, a trend that even White House apologists acknowledge threatens to make their boss a one-term President.

White House allies and partners—and there is a difference between legitimate support and mutual utility—say Biden would never consider retreating from the college speeches. From a pure optics standpoint, it would be a gift to the Trump campaign. “How can we say he’s up for another four years confronting Putin, defending NATO, countering China, protecting voting rights, and working to make sure reproductive health is a right when he can’t handle a campus protest?” one outside Biden adviser says. “Joe Biden is not going to write the other side’s scripts for them.”

But deeper still, Biden personally finds something deeply gratifying about delivering commencement speeches. Even as a first-term senator, he would happily deliver commencement addresses to students barely younger than himself on almost any campus that would have him. Over the years, Biden has come to relish the format and circumstances of speaking to new graduates on a day many would long remember. 

“He loves this [stuff],” says a former Biden aide who is no longer actively working in his orbit. “He feels like this is how he changes every life in that room, makes a difference for a generation, leaves his mark on a fulcrum day. He can’t do retail as much as he used to, so this is as close as he’s going to get.”

Biden insiders say his delivering of speeches to audiences of mixed political allegiances reflects a larger truth: he remains unshakable in his belief that when a good person makes a moral argument to an honest audience, persuasion is possible and even skeptics will bend to his will. Absent that, Biden believes he at least owes his opponents an honest airing of their viewpoint. While many of his more jaded hired guns find such thinking naive, they also concede a begrudging respect that the old-school pol hasn’t been corrupted by the cynicism that pervades so much of Washington. No one believes in Biden more than Biden himself, for better or worse.

Biden’s defenders are quick to point out that his belief in compromise and cajoling, coupled with his track record on thorny negotiations, gives him reason to rationally think he’s correct. When skeptics said his ambitious agendas for infrastructure, green-energy, and, more recently, sending more weapons for Ukraine, faced forceful skeptics, Biden kept pushing until there were signing ceremonies at the White House. The whole of his reelection raison d’etre is embedded in those laws, and win or lose this November, his successors will find it difficult to unspool them. Nor is Biden even remotely interested in hearing that he can’t do something, whether it’s win over a room of noisy critics or dislodge months of hardened political opposition that arrives on his West Wing doorstep.

So, it’s with this situational awareness that Biden’s team is sending him to Morehouse for his speech on Sunday. Ahead of that, though, the White House last Friday dispatched Steve Benjamin, the former mayor of Columbia, S.C., who now heads the White House Office of Public Engagement, to hear students’ concerns. Chief among them: Biden would turn his visit to a legendary HBCU into a campaign stop; Benjamin assured them Biden would be there to celebrate the graduates, not to look for votes in Georgia. 

But before the speech comes a faculty vote scheduled for Thursday to sign-off on Biden’s honorary degree. Such a vote is typically a formality. When Barack Obama visited campus in 2013 and picked up his honorary degree, the vote was completely unremarkable. Yet Team Biden will be watching that vote closely, as no one can say if he’ll draw the same rubber stamp in this charged moment.

Morehouse officially invited Biden back in September to become the second U.S. President in history to speak to graduates. He didn’t accept the invite until April, perhaps not coincidentally around the time ex-President Donald Trump stopped for lunch not far from campus.

Morehouse administrators have made clear that rescinding the President’s invitation is not an option: Morehouse President David A. Thomas has told students, alumni, and activists alike that there was zero chance the college would “reverse course.”

It’s a similar resolve in the White House, which is linking Biden’s approach to the Morehouse visit to his winning over wary voters for re-election.

As deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates put it on April 23: “When people speak out at our events, he shows empathy. He shows compassion. He respects their right to make their voice heard. And I think that that says a lot about how he is approaching what is a very complex situation.”

The White House is trying to convey an empathy for what Morehouse students are saying without conceding that they are right, added press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre a day later. “We get it. It’s painful,” she said.

But no one knows if all those efforts in recognizing Biden’s critics will convince Morehouse’s faculty and students gathering this weekend to receive the President politely and with few interruptions. Former Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Morehouse alumnus and a co-chairman of the Biden re-election campaign, is monitoring the situation and quietly working his network to remind leaders that a rebuke of Biden at such a prominent venue heading into an admittedly difficult re-election bid may feel good for activists in the moment but ultimately only helps Trump’s odds of returning to power. It’s not elegant, but it’s the reality facing the students on the campus that educated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—and may have a lesson or two for Biden this weekend, too.

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