© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Can Jim Clyburn Save Joe Biden Again?

Clyburn told the president to be direct with Black voters. Will it work in South Carolina?

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Rep. Jim Clyburn is a co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, which is aiming for high turnout in Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic primary. Matt Rourke/AP

Rep. Jim Clyburn sat down with Joe Biden at the White House in December. Over the course of two hours, the congressman warned the president that how he delivers his message matters.

Biden was — and continues to be — struggling in the polls among Black voters, whose support he desperately needs in November. Those surveys indicate many Black voters don’t think Biden has accomplished what he promised. And Clyburn thinks one solution could start with Biden’s messaging: “You stay in this Senate 35 or 40 years, you tend to talk one way,” Clyburn told NOTUS in an interview.

“It’s one thing to hear what you’ve done, it’s something else to see what you’ve done. But in politics, the most important thing is for one to feel what you have done,” he said, describing what he told Biden in the previously unreported meeting. “Inflation Reduction Act? Nobody’s gonna feel that. Capping insulin at $35 a month. People will feel that.”

About a month later, Biden visited South Carolina and delivered a message that was light on the type of Washington talk Clyburn so detests. Biden’s direct pitch to South Carolina Democrats, a large proportion of whom are Black, was simple: He says he has kept the promises he made in 2020, noting some of the ones that might hit closest to home.

Most people don’t get a two-hour meeting with the president, let alone see him follow their advice. But Biden listens to Clyburn because he’s a kingmaker — in South Carolina and beyond — whether the congressman wants to admit it or not.

“Jim is the reason that I’m president, because he endorsed me and got all of you to help me,” Biden told a crowd at the donor-rich first-in-the-nation dinner last weekend.

This Saturday’s Democratic primary in South Carolina will be a test not just of Biden’s popularity but of Clyburn’s influence. Clyburn is a co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, which is aiming to ensure turnout is high enough to quell the narrative that voters are simply no longer enthusiastic about Biden.

President Joe Biden, center left, and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., center right, meet owners of the Regal Lounge.
President Joe Biden and Rep. Jim Clyburn visit the Regal Lounge barber shop and spa in Columbia on Saturday. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

“I’m accepting the responsibility of trying to make that happen,” Clyburn said of Biden’s reelection and getting South Carolinians out to vote. “I don’t have an obligation to do it, but I feel responsible.”

But getting people to turn out won’t necessarily be easy in a barely contested primary. The president is certain to win the state’s primary and a majority of its 19 delegates — meaning for voters, backing him is more about sending a message. Clyburn cheekily said his measure of success for Biden in South Carolina is to beat the 64% the president got in New Hampshire, where he wasn’t even on the ballot but still won by write-ins.

The risk for Biden, and by extension Clyburn, is that poor turnout could deepen the narrative that many Black folks are no longer “ridin’ with Biden.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on Jim because he had the magic elixir last time. So there are a lot of people that are expecting him to do it again,” said his ally Rep. Troy Carter, whom Clyburn endorsed in a 2021 special election race. “That may be a little bit of unfair pressure to put on him because it’s not his job singularly; it’s our job collectively,” Carter added.


Clyburn couldn’t walk more than about 15 feet at an event in Columbia last week without being stopped by constituents and friends, many of whom he knew by name. The event, a 4,300-person gala put on by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., was packed with people who have been affected by Clyburn in some way. There were people he’d hired for his local political office; owners of small businesses frequented by the congressman; someone he’d endorsed in their own election.

He wasn’t technically the guest of honor at the event — it was first lady Jill Biden — but he was clearly the star.

“There’s probably no one in here that doesn’t know something about him or had a small conversation with him,” said Chris Javis, Clyburn’s personal tax accountant, who attended the gala. Clyburn inspired Javis and helped him get appointed to the South Carolina Board of Barber Examiners in 2019.

At one point, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison crossed the dance floor to hug his old mentor. During a lengthy conversation, Harrison recounted a story about Dean Phillips, who is competing against Biden for the Democratic nomination, campaigning in Orangeburg, S.C., earlier that week. The Minnesota Democrat told the crowd he knew most of them would vote for Biden and was corrected by an audience member shouting, “All of us!”

Harrison told Clyburn, while laughing, that he thought he knew who the audience member was. Clyburn, throwing his head back in laughter alongside his close ally Antjuan Seawright, said he did too.

Clyburn doesn’t like to talk about his immense political power — instead, in an interview with NOTUS, he said his efforts were akin to being a “steward of the earth,” a lesson learned from his revered fundamentalist minister father.

“That’s what I am,” Clyburn told NOTUS in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “It’s got nothing to do with progressive politics or conservative politics or whatnot. It is being who you are. So I reject all those labels.”

But he certainly doesn’t mind wielding his power, which was hard won over three decades in Congress. NOTUS spoke with more than two dozen of Clyburn’s allies, lawmakers and Democratic operatives who describe him as a savvy but not boastful politician willing to put in the work to help others.

“He knows he has power and he’s not afraid to use it,” said Secretary Marcia Fudge of Housing and Urban Development, noting the importance of Black politicians giving back to their communities. “It’s not something that you flaunt. It’s just something that you do.”

The congressman was influential in getting people in prominent positions, including Fudge, whom he initially pushed for Agriculture secretary before settling for the HUD spot. Or Harrison to be DNC chairman. Or Carter to be a congressman. Or his close friend and colleague Bennie Thompson to chair the Jan. 6 committee. And the list goes on and on.

“It certainly increased the confidence of others in the community,” Rep. Shontel Brown said of the impact of Clyburn’s endorsement in her Ohio race. “It also certainly helped earn the support of other Congressional Black Caucus members and we probably got a little financial boost from that.”

Biden also has been the direct beneficiary of Clyburn’s backing. The congressman endorsed Biden in 2020, reviving his sinking campaign.

Clyburn describes his decision to use his power to endorse Biden in 2020 as a pragmatic choice; not divorced from his close relationship with Biden, but heavily influenced by the reality that Biden was the only candidate he felt could beat former President Donald Trump.

“One of the most prominent members of the Black community said to me that Joe Biden was dead meat and I just ended my career. I said, ‘We shall see,’” Clyburn told NOTUS.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. and First Lady Jill Biden poses with leadership members of South Carolina's AKA chapter.
Clyburn and first lady Jill Biden pose with other attendees at a gala hosted by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. Jasmine Wright/NOTUS

It’s clearly paid off. Clyburn categorically denied that South Carolina was moved to the first primary slot as a reward for his endorsement. “He did not do that as a favor to me. I never discussed it with him,” he told NOTUS.

Now, he’s working to ensure Biden can win again. That includes advising him both privately and publicly about how to win over Black voters.

If that message doesn’t work on Black voters, Clyburn’s allies argued that wouldn’t be the congressman’s fault.

“Jim is not the keeper of all Black people,” Fudge told NOTUS. “And Black people are not a monolith. And so, if they turn out strong, which I believe many of them will, that’s great, but it would not be his fault that they do not. It would be the fault of those who are leaders in this nation who have not given them the impetus or the desire to come out and vote.”


Clyburn, now 83, was raised by his minister father and civically engaged mother who ran a beauty salon in the segregated South. After graduating from South Carolina State and marrying his wife, the civil rights activist began his life as a world history teacher at a public high school in Charleston two years before the Civil Rights Act.

“Teaching world history for me was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch,” he wrote in his 2014 book, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black.” “It was one subject I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Decades later, people in Clyburn’s circle still think of him as a teacher.

“You know what I love about Jim Clyburn? He is ever the historian,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “He is ever the teacher and he is ever the person who speaks with a pragmatic moral clarity. For many of us in the Black leadership community, he is truly the godfather.”

When Clyburn speaks, “phones are put down and people are rapt,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recalled of the most recent Congressional Black Caucus meeting.

“He was grounding this large group of Black congresspeople,” Booker said. “He is just taking us to school in a way that fortifies us and inspires us.”

Clyburn made history himself in 1992 when he became the first Black person elected in almost a century to represent South Carolina. A decade later, he was elected vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and rose to caucus chair for a brief period in 2006. Later that year, when Democrats won control of the House, he was elected majority whip.

During his tenure in the House, Clyburn has sponsored 22 bills, three of which became law. As whip, Clyburn was instrumental in ensuring the passage of major legislative efforts, including the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Another of his achievements was the Rural Energy Savings Program Act of 2010, which provided loans to rural development companies to implement energy efficiency measures. He fought to increase broadband access in rural communities (all of South Carolina will soon have broadband), pushed for millions of dollars in federal funds for his state, helped shape the Affordable Care Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and much, much more.

“I’m much more of a moderating influence than what you would call a moderate. My job, it seems to me, is to make things happen,” Clyburn told NOTUS about his style of getting things done.

Although Clyburn’s approach has awarded him with legislative wins as well as enviable power and influence, it has not come without criticism. Activists, operatives and politicians in communities of color who prefer quicker, more dramatic leadership styles have chafed at Clyburn’s style.

“He’s been [in Congress] forever and five days. And really what does his community and the Black community by extension have to show for it?” questioned Nina Turner, a former Ohio state representative and close ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Turner ran twice for Congress in Ohio, and after sparking Clyburn’s anger, was on the receiving end of what the power of his endorsement could do when he backed Shontel Brown over her in 2021.

Clyburn and his allies reject the idea that he’s ineffective.

“I got a lot of people up here who talk louder than I do, talk faster than I do,” Clyburn said, making the analogy of the tortoise — a figurine that can be seen all over his office — and the hare. “But there ain’t a sane member of the United States Congress that has stuck his or her neck out more than I have. That’s how you make progress.”

His ally Harrison, who credits Clyburn with his ascension to DNC chair, agrees.

“When it comes to actually delivering for this party and delivering for this nation, I can put all of the Republicans who we send to Washington, D.C., all together — they don’t equate to one Jim Clyburn,” Harrison told NOTUS.

His longtime colleague former Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also defended Clyburn’s modus operandi.

“Quick fixes, for the most, last only a quick time,” he told NOTUS, calling Clyburn a long-term thinker. “John Lewis would always say, ‘Keep the faith.’ And that’s what Jim has done.”

Beyond his efforts in Congress, Clyburn is a political force, bringing millions to his state’s Democratic Party and serving as a key endorser.

“He would resist with every fiber in his body being called a kingmaker,” Thompson told NOTUS. “But his record of success in helping identify good people who offer themselves to public office becomes pretty close to victory.”

And Democrats hope Clyburn can bring that same energy to voters nationwide, starting with South Carolina. Asked who would be to blame if Biden doesn’t perform well among Black voters on Saturday, Clyburn said it wouldn’t be him.

“Get out of here, how’s that going to be my fault?” Clyburn said between resonant cackles. “What do you call turnout? I’ve already voted. All my household’s already voted. We’re Black voters.”

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.