'We need a change maker': Dems want more from Biden on abortion and climate

Abortion rights will languish through the balance of summer while Congress is on recess, and President Biden has made clear he doesn't think he can address the issue with additional executive orders.

  • Progressives say they want President Biden to use his full executive power on big issues
  • Progressives worry Biden's approach will cost them the House and the Senate in the midterm elections
  • "Much of what he does is too little, too late."

WASHINGTON – Christian Vitek is tired of carrying protest signs, and the November midterms feel like too long of a wait for change.

“People need help now,” he said.

The 21-year-old self-described queer Democrat who marches for abortion rights, same-sex marriage and climate justice among other issues is one of many progressive voters who expected more from his party after it won the White House and a majority in Congress in the last election. 

Instead, Vitek has been disappointed by the slow pace of legislative action in Washington. He says he feels a sense of urgency that he doesn’t see in party leaders.

“It’s a scary world when you grow up with these rights and now fear the right to marriage could be stripped away,” Vitek said.

Bills protecting the legal right to same-sex marriage and access to abortion services are among the business lawmakers have left unfinished as they prepare to embark on a monthlong recess.

With diminished faith in the judiciary and Congress up for grabs in the midterms, Democratic activists have pressed President Joe Biden to do all he can with his executive powers to address progressives concerns. Democrats in Congress have racked up victories on infrastructure and semiconductor bills under Biden, but many remain frustrated that the president – a decades long centrist – has stopped short of swift action on abortion rights, climate, student loans and immigration that could alienate moderate and conservative voters. 

Biden has not declared the public health emergency progressives have sought since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June. Rather, he has taken executive actions such as an order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to find ways to help low-income patients seeking abortions out of state, which will not lead to immediate policy changes. 

The latest USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll shows Biden with a 39% approval rating, and voters said they want to elect a Congress that mostly stands up to the president.

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Vitek himself has carried a homemade, cardboard sign that said “Abolish the filibuster!” to protests for more than two months calling for abortion access to be preserved. 

It has become an unofficial midterm battle cry, with congressional Democrats and candidates making abolishing the filibuster part of their platform – including Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who endorsed two candidates because of it.

Waiting until November to elect a new cadre of lawmakers is a luxury low-income Americans don’t have, said Vitek, the first college graduate in four generations from Walton, New York.

“Wealthy and affluent people will always find a way to get an abortion. They will be able to pay student loans. They will have health care,” he said. “But I’ve grown up in a low-income family, and I’ve seen how a lack of resources can snowball and impact a life.”

Christian Vitek, a 21-year-old Democrat from rural New York, has been disappointed in the lack of progress and protection for human rights while his party has a majority in the White House and Congress.

Fightin’ Joe

The White House has pointed to bipartisan agreements on guns, infrastructure and computer chips and Democratic spending legislation that extends healthcare subsidies and funds climate initiatives it is pushing Congress to pass as evidence that Biden's approach is working.

"When 'Fightin’ Joe Biden' says he’s going to keep fighting for this issue,” Jared Bernstein, a Biden economic adviser, said of the spending bill at a recent briefing, “I think we should all believe him.”

Unlike his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who signed executive orders when legislation stalled in Congress, Biden's approach has been tempered.

“As many executive actions that the White House can take that brings relief to people across the country, we should do, and we should do them quickly,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal.

Biden is still mulling executive actions on climate, student loans, immigration and abortion rights. Progressives say the president should prioritize actions providing relief to struggling Americans that could help with winning the midterm elections.

"Much of what he does is too little too late," said Nina Turner, national co-chair of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign. "And he's still living in yesteryear."

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Abortion access under scrutiny

Edward Gometz, a 45-year-old Latino voter in reliably blue Chicago, is concerned leaders of his party in Congress and the White House aren’t meeting the moment.

“We failed at electing a deal maker,” he said. “Now we need a change maker.”

Gometz said he thinks Biden should "step aside" in 2024 and let someone else run for the Democratic nomination.

Frustration has been mounting toward the president since May 3, when thousands of young voters gathered over a series of days to protest outside the Supreme Court in wake of the Roe leak. 

"It’s costing me more money to live, and I’m living in a country where I’m losing constitutional rights,” said Emma Hearns, an 18-year-old George Washington University student. 

She and other Democrats – including members of Congress – have been calling on Biden to find additional ways to protect abortion access.

“A lot of people are upset about the way he’s handling this, not just activists," said Nelini Stamp, director of strategy and partnerships at the Working Families Party.

Biden has said no executive order will restore Roe, only an act of Congress. His message has not resonated with progressive activists, who say Biden should have taken executive action immediately after the Dobbs decision.

The House passed bills to restore the protections in Roe v. Wade in July, ensuring patients have the right to travel across state lines for legal abortions and protecting access to contraception, but Republican opposition will keep it from advancing in the Senate.

Christopher Scott, chief political officer for the progressive activist group Democracy for America, said a lot of activists feel like Biden was late.

“They’re consistently in a reactive state. And I think a lot of people are frustrated, because we feel like he should be more proactive in these moments. And also working harder, particularly in the Senate to get his former colleagues in line — in lockstep — to get what he wants to get done," Scott said.

In the meantime, Democratic lawmakers are pointing to the recent abortion vote in Kansas as a sign they are on the right side of the issue. Voters in the conservative state on Tuesday chose overwhelmingly to protect abortion rights — the first litmus test since the Supreme Court decision overturned Roe. 

A deeper look:Post-Roe, what does it mean to be anti-abortion? GOP split on what's next

President Joe Biden speaks about climate change and clean energy at Brayton Power Station, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Somerset, Mass. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Climate a potential driver for youth voters

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., reached a deal that salvaged partof Biden's ambitious climate agenda.

The wide-ranging agreement would, in part, lower carbon emissions. 

The Senate deal comes after Biden sent federal funds to communities to help them combat and prepare for the effects of extreme weather events.

But it's a sliver of what progressives fought for in hopes of meeting the threat of a warming planet.

"We've got planes they can't fly in or land in Europe because it's too hot,Turner said. "I mean, this is a worldwide emergency."

Biden is still considering a climate emergency, National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy indicated as he took executive action last month. "The president wants to make sure that we’re doing this right, that we’re laying it out, and that we have the time we need to get this work done. That’s all."

NextGen America, a progressive political action committee that is working to get nearly 10 million young Americans to the polls, say climate is one of the most important issues for youth voters.

There are more than 8 million new eligible voters in the midterms and they can have a "decisive impact," according to a July report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement at Tufts University.

"We have a clear message for politicians this year: Don't underestimate the power of a pissed-off generation," NextGen President Cristinia Tzintzún Ramirez said.

Inflation and the economy top issues

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks during a news conference about the Inflation Reduction Act outside the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Democratic senators are presently working to pass a climate and drug-pricing deal they have dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. The economy and inflation are issues voters say in polling they are most concerned about. 

The Biden administration is touting a letter from 126 economists who say the bill’s deficit reduction would put downward pressure on inflation.

But not all economists agree. Moody’s Analytics estimated the package would modestly reduce inflation over the next ten years. A budget model from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania predicted changes would be slight and the legislation may not have a significant impact on inflation at all. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. criticized the deal on the Senate floor last week, saying it does not do enough to help to lower prescription drug costs, climate and health care. One of his biggest criticisms is that the new act, compared to the previous Build Back Better plan, does not extend the $300-a-month child tax credit for low-income families or provide free and universal pre-K. 

"So if you are a working parent right now, struggling to to pay for childcare, this bill turns its back on you," Sanders said of the Inflation Reduction Act. 


Biden is still fighting legal challenges stemming from his predecessors’ immigration orders. His administration won a court battle to end a Trump-era policy requiring migrants awaiting asylum hearings to ‘Remain in Mexico,’ but it has not been able to lift the Title 42 public health order that allows migrants to be expelled.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are also pushing Biden to action to protect immigrants who were part of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

“We believe the president has a series of options, including expanding executive orders, expanding the scope, and preparing for the possibility of any negative result in court by considering, among other things, parole in place,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said.

Same-sex marriage a major concern

In this file photo, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., talks to reporters after a private meeting with Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson at the Capitol in Washington, March 28, 2022.  Baldwin, who is the first openly gay senator and has been working on gay rights issues since she first entered state politics in 1986, says the “world has changed,” especially since the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision upholding gay marriage.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has indicated other cases could be overturned on the heels of the Dobbs decision, such as those that legalized same-sex marriage and protected access to contraceptives. 

The House has preemptively moved and passed legislation to protect gay marriage and access to contraception, but the Senate hasn't taken up the bills yet. 

A Gallup poll in June showed 71% of voters supported same-sex marriage. 

Senate Democrats need the support of at least 10 Republicans to pass a bill that cleared the House with 47 GOP votes.

And so far, the Senate doesn't have the votes. 

"We are working really hard to build support in the Senate," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., an openly gay lawmaker who is co-sponsoring Senate legislation.

She said a vote would likely come after the August recess. 

"We will move when we're sure we have 10 (Republican votes)," she said. "We're halfway there."

Student loan debt in limbo

Biden has been considering some amount of student-debt cancellation, but payments are set to resume Sept. 1 unless Biden takes action.

“I hope we're very close to getting that done," Jayapal, of the Progressive Caucus, said.

Some progressives have called for all student debt to be eliminated, while others have said they would accept cancellation of $10,000 or more, which is Biden's preferred amount.

“So many first-generation students enter into higher education so they can have a good future in this country. When they come out, they are weighed down by student loans and continue the cycle of generational poverty,” said Vitek, who comes from a low-income family.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was non-committal last month about a timeframe for when student debt forgiveness may occur. "This is something that is clearly important to the president and as soon as we have anything to preview we will make sure that happens."

Until then, Vitek said he will go on marching. And he'll bring his signs along with him.

"There is organizing happening up here like I've never seen before," Vitek said of his rural red district in upstate New York. "People are really mobilized now."

Executive actions:Biden announces steps to protect abortion access, but advocates urge him to do more

What's next on abortion:With abortion bills stalled, congressional Democrats look to voters to save Roe

New steps on climate:As congressional path for climate change measures appears to close, Biden announces executive actions

Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace. 

Francesca Chambers is a White House Correspondent for USA TODAY and can be reached at fchambers@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @fran_chambers.