Biden, Harris, and Tha God
A powerful voice in Black media is a thorn in the administration's side.
There has been quite a bit of talk the last couple of years about Black voters becoming more disillusioned with the Democratic Party in general and President Biden in particular. While it’s almost surely overblown—the demographic is still overwhelmingly Democratic and likely to vote for Biden’s re-election—it’s nonetheless a phenomenon that bears watching as our parties realign.
A POLITICO piece from yesterday morning, “Trouble with tha God,” sheds some interesting if anecdotal light on it.
It’s not so much that Charlamagne tha God has beef with the president.
It’s just that he thinks Joe Biden is a lousy messenger and that he lacks the basic political skills that — whatever one thinks about the guy — Donald Trump possesses.
Sitting in the second row of his black Escalade as his driver crawls through Manhattan traffic on a late October morning, the co-host of the influential “Breakfast Club” radio show said Biden and others in his circle spend too much time posturing.
Instead of thinking of better ways to play up policy achievements, he argues, Democrats rely too much on depicting former President Donald Trump as a crook.
“It’s almost like Democrats are doing this purity test. America is not pure. The people of America are not pure. We’re flawed,” he said. “I’m not looking for my politicians to be pure, … I’m looking for my politicians to be effective.”
Biden has faced similarly tough recriminations from other political luminaries. But coming from Charlamagne, it hits different. The radio host, 45, claims a loyal audience of 8 million monthly listeners. He is ascendant, having taken on roles guest hosting “The Daily Show,” starting up his own podcasting empire with iHeartRadio and being inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He’s also reaching the very voters Biden is struggling to draw: young and Black.
And increasingly, Charlamagne’s appraisal of the Biden administration has been sour. While he anguishes at the thought of a 2020 rematch, the radio personality gives Trump props for commanding attention and selling his ideas.
Trump relentlessly touted — or, in some cases, gave himself outsized credit for — policies he enacted as president. He signed the First Step Act into law, which brought modest reforms to the federal criminal justice system. He pardoned rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black. And he sent stimulus checks, or what a lot of folks commonly refer to as “stimmies,” during the first year of the pandemic.
“Imagine you felt like you’ve never gotten anything from the government, ever. And you don’t know how politics work, you just know you just got this check in the mail, with [Trump’s] name on it,” Charlamagne said. “You will feel like he did something.”
Biden sent checks too. But Charlamagne argues that he failed to play it up the way his predecessor did.
Charlamagne doesn’t consider himself a Democrat or a Republican — a position he says allows him to call bullshit on empty campaign rhetoric politicians spew when they decide it’s time to engage Black audiences to wrangle up votes.
“In 2024, it’s a race between the cowards, the crooks and the couch,” he said, referring to Biden, Trump and the option to stay home.
Charlamagne suspects the couch will win.
There’s a whole lot more to the piece, much of which focuses on Charlamagne’s evolution as a host as he’s matured and gained influence, as well as the ways in which Democratic politicians—Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Kamala Harris—have hurt themselves with appearances on his show.
Reading the feature, it strikes me that Charlamagne expects that Democratic politicians to spend more time on “Black media” and, frankly, to him and his audience. Still, his larger critique of Biden The Politician is not off the mark.
After more than three years of Biden in office, Charlamagne openly questions his endorsement and why Biden can’t take advantage of simple messaging opportunities, like in October when the president announced the designation of 31 tech hubs across the nation intended to spur innovation. The radio personality fumed on his program that the announcement didn’t include basic information about how it could help average Americans or provide clues to what types of jobs folks should be preparing to apply for or how those jobs would be protected from advancements in artificial intelligence.
“I’m not the highest grade of weed in the dispensary,” he quipped to me. “I’m genuinely asking questions, because I want answers and that is just common sense to me. Yeah, it’s good that you’re making all these investments in tech and everything else. But what does this mean, for regular everyday people?” (Fun fact, one of Charlamagne’s next business ventures is opening up a Hashstoria marijuana dispensary in Newark in early 2024 with partners Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan and Bakari Sellers, now a TV pundit.)
At the same time, there’s a not-unreasonable pushback that he’s shooting at the wrong target:
The administration has periodically back channeled with him, though it’s often to express annoyance with how he is framing an issue. For his part, Charlamagne said the conversations with White House officials are respectful and that he’s never asked him to tone down his rhetoric.
Within Democratic circles, including inside the administration, there is a general recognition that the president needs to do more to reach Black voters.
Biden officials convened a meeting at the White House with influential Black Democrats in mid-December to discuss how the administration can better engage Black men ahead of the 2024 elections. And the president has highlighted the administration’s successes helping Black-owned businesses at a recent stop in Milwaukee before Christmas.
And, for whatever validity his critiques of Biden have, Charlamagne seems to have too little grasp of the art of the possible:
Charlamagne stumped with then-presidential candidate Harris in 2019 in Goose Creek, South Carolina. It was there that she unveiled her plan to tackle the nation’s mental health crisis, something of a personal topic to Charlamagne, who has used his platform to speak about his own mental health struggles and tried to destigmatize the issue for Black men.
Since then, he said, Harris and the rest of the Biden administration have not adequately elevated mental health awareness as an issue or done enough promoting criminal justice reforms, particularly on marijuana offenses.
The White House announced a proposed rule in July that closed a loophole that previously allowed health care providers to deny care for mental health disorders and substance abuse. Biden also announced last October that he was pardoning all federal offenses for simple weed possession.
But that wasn’t enough for Charlamagne, who also said has no plans to throw his support behind Biden’s reelection. He said he feels burned by backing Harris.
“I’ve learned my lesson from doing that,” he said. “Once they got in the White House, she … kind of disappeared.”
He suspects neither Biden nor Harris will make a return to “The Breakfast Club” this cycle.
Charlamagne knows his word holds weight with his audience. “When I give people my word like: ‘Yo man, I think we should be supporting Kamala Harris for vice president … because she’s going to hold it down.’ When we say those things and people don’t see her holding it down, that causes issues,” he said.
He says he still gets blowback from it. “‘Damn, you told us to vote for [them].’ Do you know how many people say that to me all the time?”
Presidents have only so much political capital to spend. And, while Biden ostensibly had Democratic control of the House and Senate his first two years in office, the degree to which Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema was thorns in his side are well-documented. The idea that he was going to prioritize mental health and marijuana reform, neither of which are core voter concerns (or likely to attract Manchin’s support), is absurd.
Further, while I’m hardly Harris’ biggest fan, she’s the Vice President. She has no policymaking authority beyond the ability to persuade the President. What more was she supposed to “hold down”?
And then there’s this:
There’s a difference, of course, between not endorsing someone and actively criticizing. And for the Biden White House, Charlamagne has become something of an irritant, whether it’s raising questions about the president’s political acumen or helping elevate longshot presidential hopefuls Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Marianne Williamson and Cornel West — but not, notably, Biden or Harris.
One he has given outsized attention to is fellow South Carolinian, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
When she appeared on “The Daily Show” with Charlamagne in December he asked: “Why doesn’t the GOP just move away from Trump and get behind you?”
He believes Haley could “definitely” beat Biden — something polling backs up.
Such proclamations make Charlamagne a growing fixture in the conservative media ecosystem.
Fox News and other conservative outlets routinely write about Charlamagne’s digs on the Biden administration, helping to amplify his reach and showcase what many always knew was the case: Biden does not have unified Black support.
For his part, Charlamagne says he does not fully understand conservatives’ obsession with what he does on “The Breakfast Club” or any of his other outlets. At the end of the day, he notes, he is an entertainer and knows that ratings, eyeballs and clicks are good for business.
It always irritates me when influential entertainers in the political space—whether it was the late Rush Limbaugh or former Daily Show host Jon Stewart—simultaneously shape the policy agenda and the election cycles and yet hide behind the “I’m just an entertainer” schtick. It’s just disingenuous.
The posture has earned him his own chorus of critics, who say his push for audience and relevance is blinding him to a very obvious pitfall: His relentless criticisms of Biden may unintentionally elevate Trump, which some Democrats argue will be detrimental for Black voters.
Still, there are other Democrats — particularly those outside of the Biden administration — who understand the unique perch Charlamagne occupies.
There may only be one God. But there’s also only one Charlamagne too.
“I have enormous respect for him, he’s one of the greatest influences of our time,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist who has appeared on “The Breakfast Club” numerous times.
“He represents a different generation, a different voice, he reaches people that typically do not follow the breaking news each and every day,” she noted.
I’ve only seen snippets of Charlamagne’s interviews over the years and have no real sense of the man. To the extent he’s being honest in his questioning rather than just trying to generate attention to himself, I’m firmly in the Let The Chips Fall Where They May camp. He has no duty to restrain his critiques of Biden for fear that they indirectly help Trump.
At the same time, if he believes—as he clearly does—that re-electing Biden is light years better for his audience than a second Trump term, then he should certainly make that clear repeatedly. In swing states with large Black populations, their sitting on the couch come November could very well make the difference.
UPDATE: In the comments below, @Mimai posits:
Premise: Any criticism* of Biden harms his bid for re-election. It chips away at his support among his, er, supporters. It reinforces the opposition. And it increases the likelihood that fence-sitters (who otherwise lean toward Biden given the alternatives) will stay home.
Conclusion: One should never criticize Biden.
Question: How is this framing wrong?
While it follows syllogistic logic quite well, its flaw is its underlying presumption that the only thing that matters in life is who wins the 2024 election. To the extent Charlamagne is a legitimate political commentator rather than a mere showman or Democratic Party operative, he owes his audience integrity in his analysis.
I spent most of the life of this blog as a supporter of Republican candidates, albeit more enthusiastically in the earlier days. Even then, I criticized the policy choices or political moves of those for whom I intended to vote. Since 2016, I’ve been a #NeverTrump guy and reluctant supporter of Democratic candidates. That doesn’t require me to be their cheerleader.
Indeed, I roundly criticized the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt for admitting that they shaded their commentary to “carry water” for
John McCain the Republicans in the 2006 midterms even though they had reservations. Hackery is the ultimate sin of the pundit.