By Jeff Mason
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday denounced white supremacy and political violence in a direct message to Black voters during a visit to South Carolina aimed at shoring up a critical constituency whose support has waned since he took office.
Biden spoke from the pulpit of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine Black parishioners in 2015.
The Democratic president continued to sharpen his attacks on former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination, while hailing his administration’s efforts to reduce inflation, drive Black unemployment down and combat housing discrimination.
Describing the 2015 attack at the church, Biden said: “The word of God was pierced by bullets of hate and rage propelled by not just gunpowder, but by a poison. Poison that has for too long haunted this nation. And what is that poison? White supremacy … This has no place in America — not today, tomorrow or ever.”
Biden described Trump as a threat to democracy, citing the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters in 2021 hoping to overturn the Republican’s election loss.
“That violent mob was whipped up by lies from a defeated former president,” Biden said. “His actions were among the worst dereliction of duty of any president in American history.”
Trump failed to concede the 2020 election or acknowledge the votes of millions, Biden said, despite dozens of court cases affirming Biden’s victory.
“He’s a loser,” Biden said, drawing applause from hundreds attending the speech.
Recent polling has shown Trump beating Biden in swing states that will determine who wins the White House this year, and a Reuters/Ipsos poll in December showed a rematch would be close.
Biden’s campaign said he would return to South Carolina before its Feb. 3 Democratic presidential primary. The president thanked Black voters in the South for helping him win the presidency.
Biden, who lauded the congregation for their forgiveness of the 2015 shooter, later met privately with families and survivors.
Biden’s remarks were interrupted by protesters chanting “ceasefire now,” referring to Israel’s assault on Gaza that has killed more than 23,000 people. Biden said he has been working with the Israeli government to “get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”
Some audience members chanted “four more years” when Biden took to the pulpit and again as those protesters were led away.
Biden’s trip to the Southern state comes as some Democrats have raised questions about his reelection strategy. Some donors have been eager to hear Biden be more candid or more aggressively target Trump rather than focus on the economy.
Representative James Clyburn, a Democrat whose endorsement helped Biden win South Carolina in the 2020 primary, said on Sunday he was concerned about Biden’s standing with Black voters and frustrated that the president’s record had not resonated.
Clyburn, who gave Biden a rousing introduction, said he told Biden he worried that Democrats had “not been able to break through that MAGA wall in order to get to people exactly what this president has done.”
MAGA refers to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Polls show support for Biden by Black voters has softened.
Former President Barack Obama, also concerned about Trump’s potential to win in 2024, discussed the campaign with Biden over lunch before Christmas, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Obama has told allies that Biden’s campaign needs to have the power to make decisions without White House clearance.
Biden’s campaign on Monday said Mitch Landrieu, who helped implement Biden’s $1 trillion law to build new bridges, roads and spread high-speed internet, will leave his White House job to help lead the re-election effort.
SOUTH CAROLINA FIRST
Biden’s trip comes as Democrats have shifted their primary calendar to put South Carolina first, leapfrogging Iowa’s caucus and New Hampshire’s traditional first-in-the-country primary vote.
South Carolina has not backed a Democrat for president since 1976, but Democrats believe the state’s diverse population better reflects the party’s voters.
The campaign is investing earlier than ever to reach voters of color, rather than parachuting in closer to Election Day simply to drive turnout, one campaign adviser told Reuters.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Heather Timmons, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)