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As some Democrats grow impatient with Biden, alternative voices emerge

President Joe Biden speaks during a Fourth of July celebration for military families, as first lady Jill Biden listens, on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, on Monday, July 4, 2022. President Biden released a statement on Monday afternoon saying that he was "shocked by the senseless gun violence" after a mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill. Later, he spoke at an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House.SARAH SILBIGER/NYT

President Biden took the stage at an Independence Day barbecue just a few hours after the latest horrific shooting to upend an American city — but at his first opportunity to address the nation in person about the killings in Highland Park, Ill., he did so only obliquely.

“You all heard what happened today,” Biden said. “Things will get better still, but not without more hard work together.”

It was not until about two hours later, after singer Andy Grammer finished an acoustic version of "Give Love," that the president returned to the stage and attempted to respond to the tragedy more fulsomely, calling for a moment of silence and decrying the spate of mass shootings. "We’ve got a lot more work to do," Biden said. "We’ve got to get this under control."

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In contrast, J.B. Pritzker, Illinois’ Democratic governor, delivered a fiery response that took direct aim at those blocking gun-control legislation. "If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry," he said, seething while Biden was consoling. "I’m furious. I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence."

In the view of many distraught Democrats, the country is facing a full-blown crisis on a range of fronts and Biden seems unable or unwilling to respond with appropriate force. Democracy is under direct attack, they say, as Republicans change election rules and the Supreme Court rapidly rewrites American law. Mass shootings are routine, abortion rights have ended, and Democrats could suffer big losses in the next election.

Biden’s response is often a mix of scolding Republicans, urging Americans to vote Democratic, and voicing broad optimism about the country. For some Democrats, that risks a dangerous failure to meet the moment.

"There is a leadership vacuum right now, and he’s not filling it," said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic consultant and former top adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "I sympathize with the argument that there’s very little they can do legislatively. But in moments of crisis, the president is called upon to be a leader. And when people are feeling scared and angry and outraged, they look to him for that, and they’re not getting much."

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden decided on his own that he wanted to return to the stage on Independence Day to deliver fuller remarks and that his later comments were not a recognition that his first ones had fallen short of the moment. "There have been many times the president has spoken forcefully, urgently, about a moment that currently exists in our country, which is a gun violence epidemic," Jean-Pierre said. "To say that this president has not shown urgency, it’s just false."

But as the Democratic rank and file’s thirst for a more combative attitude becomes increasingly evident, other party leaders are beginning to showcase an alternative tone, one that goes far more sharply at Republican attitudes and tactics. Pritzker mocked the notion that "you have a constitutional right to an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine," and Gavin Newsom, California Democratic governor, has been displaying a notably pugnacious spirit.

On July Fourth, Newsom took the unusual step of airing an ad in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is widely seen as a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate and has been implementing deeply conservative policies. DeSantis has rapidly become a detested figure among liberals, and Newsom sought to take him on in conservative terms, casting him as an enemy of liberty.

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"Freedom? It’s under attack in your state," Newsom said in the ad, addressing Florida residents and citing book bans, voting restrictions, and laws on classroom instruction. "I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight. Or join us in California — where we still believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate, and the freedom to love. Don’t let them take your freedom."

In case anyone missed the point, Ian Calderon, the Democratic former majority leader of the California State Assembly, tweeted: "Governor @GavinNewsom is the only Dem that seems to understand that democrats everywhere want their leaders to push back with a strong message and to stop letting the GOP control the narrative. Republicans are loud and it’s time for Democrats to get louder."

Biden has never been his party’s most vociferous or combative voice, and throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, he often faced criticism from within his party that he was too amenable to Republicans — too conciliatory a politician and too genial a person — to capture the fighting mood of a party ready to take on President Donald Trump.

White House officials argue that the fact that Biden won both the primary race and the general election underscores the benefits of trusting the president’s political instincts. They have long taken pride in not getting swayed by the conversations that dominate on Twitter, particularly from the left.

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Biden’s supporters say he is just as outraged as Pritzker and others after the recent shootings in Highland Park; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Uvalde, Texas, noting that he helped enact the first significant, if modest, federal gun-control measure in decades. They also say he has lobbed the exact same criticisms at DeSantis as those cited by Newsom in his ad.

An administration official said that while Democrats have long expressed private alarm at Biden’s perceived missteps, the Supreme Court abortion decision seemed to represent a turning point. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to deliver a candid assessment, the official said it catalyzed three key frustrations — the high stakes, Biden’s inability to do much unilaterally to fight the decision, and concern that the White House would let the moment pass without using it to galvanize fellow Democrats.