(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden cast American democracy as under attack, echoing themes from both his 2020 campaign and his nascent reelection bid in a speech at Howard University’s commencement ceremony.
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“The oldest most sinister forces may believe they’ll determine America’s future, but they are wrong,” Biden said. “We will determine America’s future, you will determine America’s future.”
A successful Biden 2024 bid, officially launched in late April, hinges on his ability to energize young people and Black Americans, two crucial Democratic voting blocs.
Biden has credited Black voters with helping him win in 2020 but his support has faltered in polls, dragging his overall approval ratings to the lowest point of his administration. An April Gallup survey found 37 percent approve of Biden’s job performance.
At Howard, one of the nation’s most prestigious Black universities, Biden warned of assaults on democracy and called on attendees “to stand against books being banned and Black history being erased,” a critique of Republican rivals including Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Polls show the two leading a potential 2024 GOP primary field.
The president’s address is one of a number of events he and Vice President Kamala Harris have undertaken to reenergize Black and young voters. The day of their campaign’s official launch, Harris joined an abortion rights rally on Howard’s campus amid a court battle over access to the widely-used abortion drug mifepristone.
One of Biden’s signature initiatives, student loan debt relief, is currently in limbo as the administration awaits a ruling from the Supreme Court on its legality. The program, which would wipe away billions in debt from borrowers has been popular with younger voters but sparked legal challenges from critics over its size and scope.
The effort faced skepticism during oral arguments earlier this year from the high court’s conservative majority over whether the administration could enact the program without express approval from Congress.
“My student debt relief plan would helps tens of millions of people, especially those on Pell Grants,” Biden said. “But this new Republican party is dead set against it, suing my administration to stop you from getting student debt relief.”
Biden was awarded an honorary degree from the university during the ceremony, as was US Representative James Clyburn, whose crucial endorsement in South Carolina reinvigorated Biden’s primary campaign ahead of the 2020 election.
“We know that fear can shadow hope. But it’s also true that hope can defeat fear,” Biden said.
Harris, a Howard graduate, is expected to feature prominently in the pair’s reelection bid as voters express concerns about Biden’s age. At 80 he is the oldest US president.
In March, the vice president attended Howard’s first men’s NCAA basketball game in over 30 years and conducted the coin toss at a football game last year between Howard and rival Hampton University.
Biden’s speech was met with a handful of protests — some graduates stood and turned their back to him as he spoke, and a few held signs. One sign mentioned the recent death of Jordan Neely, while another said that Biden and Harris “don’t care about Black people.”
The Biden administration has devoted significant resources to HBCUs, which have faced financial woes in recent years exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The American Rescue Plan, a pandemic-relief package passed in 2021, included more than $2.7 billion in support for historically Black colleges.
Last year, Biden said he was appointing NBA basketball player Chris Paul, actress Taraji P. Henson and other Black celebrities, business leaders and academics to an advisory board aimed at strengthening HBCUs.
The president will also deliver a commencement speech in June at the US Air Force Academy. Biden hosted their football team in April at the White House, where he presented the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. Last year, Biden spoke at graduation ceremonies at the US Naval Academy and his own alma mater, the University of Delaware.
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