President Joe Biden on Friday called the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade a “sad day for the Court and for the country” and called on Congress to restore abortion rights protections.
“Now with Roe gone, let’s be very clear: The health and life of women of this nation are now at risk,” he stated, speaking from the White House. He called it “a tragic error by the Supreme Court in my view.”
The White House had been quietly preparing for this moment for months. It began when the Supreme Court took the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case and accelerated dramatically with the early May leak of a draft opinion that signaled the court was ready to overturn Roe. Aides prepared for a variety of outcomes, including the possibility that Chief Justice John Roberts would be able to broker some sort of compromise that would at least partially leave Roe intact.
But a decision to gut the ruling was always viewed as the most likely, and West Wing staff began having multiple meetings a week to try to gameplan a response, recognizing that such a decision would set off a political firestorm, one filled with both peril and opportunity for Biden.
The news broke a day before Biden was set to travel to the G-7 summit in Germany, thousands of miles away from Washington. And it created the specter of a president heading overseas to deal with foreign entanglements while massive political tectonic shifts were happening back home. The president said no executive actions could fill the abortion rights void left by the Court’s decision.
“This fall, Roe is on the ballot,” he said, urging Congress to elect pro-abortion rights lawmakers. “The court has done what it has never done before: expressly take away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans that had already been recognized.”
The Supreme Court’s decision, achieving a goal held by conservatives for nearly half a century, was expected to spark massive protests and administration officials have consulted with law enforcement about the possibility of counter-protests and violence. Biden himself urged protesters to remain peaceful as they objected to the Court’s ruling.
The decision comes at a politically perilous time for Biden, whose approval rating has fallen amid surging inflation that has soared to its highest level in four decades. The price of gasoline has hit record highs, further frustrating a nation more than two years into a pandemic, and some economists have begun warning about an impending recession.
But the abortion ruling could reshape the political environment for this November’s midterms. Polling suggests that Republicans enjoy wide advantages in their efforts to regain at least one, and potentially both, houses of Congress. But the loss of a right that had been enshrined into law for nearly 50 years could jolt Democratic turnout and change the midterm races. In addition to urging Democrats to vote on Roe, Biden warned that future rights were also at stake because of Friday’s ruling, noting the Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurrence raised the specter of revisiting decisions on marriage equality and contraception, too.
Biden termed it an “extreme and dangerous path the Court is now taking us on.”
As a personal matter, the court’s decision presents a tricky moment one for Biden, who has long defended abortion rights but, as a devout Catholic, had not until recently been outspoken on the issue or used the word “abortion” in public.
As a political matter, Biden’s aides believe that voters would rather see him put up a fierce, even if losing, fight in opposition to the loss of the right, which has the support of the majority of Americans. Inside the administration, there has been discussion of a host of executive orders – including declaring a national public health emergency and preparing the Justice Department to fight efforts to prosecute those crossing state lines to receive abortion – but none of that would fully replace what the court took away.
“There’s a lot of high-level anger in the White House over this. They’re energized, but I think they also feel politically trapped because there are very few options,” a person familiar with White House discussions told POLITICO.
“I think there is a desire to do something bold on abortion but the options are narrowing. I have a strong feeling that President Biden will badly disappoint his base, but the truth is he is facing a hostile court and deeply divided government,” said Larry Gostin, a Georgetown public health law professor who advises the White House.
Aides have begun reaching out to progressive lawmakers and outside liberal groups to preview their response options. There have been discussions about the president and vice president participating in marches in the days ahead. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman elected to her office, is expected to play a significant role in the administration’s response, aides said. For weeks, Harris has met with different groups of legal experts, health providers and state officials on what the path forward might look like, both for the White House and outside groups.
Some in Biden’s inner circle have advised a blitz of action even if much of it is subsequently struck down in court. But others, while pained at the thought of Roe being overturned, have counseled against taking actions that Republicans could paint as executive overreach. They also worry about establishing a template that a future GOP president could use.
“The administration continues to explore every possible option in response to the anticipated Supreme Court decision in Dobbs,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, we will need Congress to take action to restore Roe.”
While Biden’s standing has fallen among groups across the board, frustration has particularly grown on the left wing of the party, where there is a sense that the White House has been unable to move the ball on voting rights or climate change. Those same Democrats stand ready to loudly agitate Biden to do more if Roe is stripped from the books.
To that end, in recent weeks, aides have conducted a massive outreach campaign, establishing lines of dialogue with national abortion rights activists, women’s groups, faith leaders and medical organizations like the American Medical Association. Weekly meetings were held between senior aides and women’s organizations, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL. They have also opened up dialogues with elected officials and advocates in both states that have moved to preserve access to abortions – like California, Connecticut and New York – as well as those that have attempted to undercut access, like Texas, Kansas and Idaho.
The biggest push will be focused on voter turnout, to elect more Democrats on the state and federal levels who would be able to protect abortion rights and, eventually, keeping a Democrat in the White House who could appoint more Supreme Court justices.