JENNA: Hi. This is Jenna (ph) from Albuquerque, N.M., and I’ve reached the point where I have started working from my computer while taking a bubble bath. This podcast was recorded at…
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
11:37 a.m. on Friday, April 2.
JENNA: Keep in mind that things will probably change by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
DAVIS: You know, of all the work-from-home positions I’ve tried, bubble bath has not been on the list yet.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I don’t think a good idea with electronic recording equipment, Sue.
DAVIS: That’s also a very good point.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I don’t know.
DAVIS: Hey there. It’s the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
JOHNSON: I’m Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: And I’m Nina Totenberg, and I cover the Supreme Court. And I listen to the radio in the shower. I have a shower radio.
DAVIS: And, Nina Totenberg, back-to-back days in the podcast – what an honor for me this week.
TOTENBERG: It’s an honor for me, too.
DAVIS: And you’re back again because earlier in the week, President Biden announced his first judicial nominations, including one judge that’s seen as a possible contender for the Supreme Court. So tell us about this group of nominees.
TOTENBERG: Well, there were in all 11, and 10 to the federal courts, the U.S. federal courts. And they were an incredibly diverse group. There was the first Muslim American. There was in several areas the first African American to ever serve on that particular court. And there was Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, replacing now-Attorney General Merrick Garland, formerly Judge Merrick Garland. And she’s African American. She is a hot ticket as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court if there’s ever a vacancy there during the Biden years. And she’s a really interesting, relatively young nominee now on the district court, the trial court. And if she’s confirmed, she’ll move up to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
DAVIS: It seems very symbolic to put a judge like that in the Merrick Garland seat, which was also seen as a pipeline to the Supreme Court.
TOTENBERG: Definitely. And, you know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, Brett Kavanaugh – they all came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And one of the reasons that it’s such an important court is that it deals primarily with all of the regulatory stuff that comes up through them to deal with as to whether it’s – what the government is trying to do or somebody else is trying to do is legal or not.
JOHNSON: I just want to emphasize for a moment that under the Trump administration, all four years of Trump, we had no Black circuit court nominees…
JOHNSON: …None, zero. And now Biden’s first move on the courts includes at least two circuit court nominees for the D.C. Circuit, as Nina noted, and the 7th Circuit. So that alone is a milestone day.
TOTENBERG: Trump really was a locomotive to get court of appeals judges nominated and confirmed. And, in fact, he and, importantly, Mitch McConnell managed to get confirmed 54 court of appeals judges in one term. Barack Obama got 55 in two terms. George W. Bush got 62 in two terms.
DAVIS: Nina, are you watching the court for any potential vacancies this year?
TOTENBERG: Well, I’m watching.
DAVIS: Always watching.
TOTENBERG: But, you know, the obvious possibility is 82-year-old Stephen Breyer. But as of now, we’ve heard not a peep. Now, that doesn’t mean, of course, that he hasn’t sent a letter to the president saying he’s planning to retire upon confirmation of replacement at the end of the term. But if he has, the Biden people have managed to keep it a secret.
DAVIS: Pushing conservative judges onto the court – it was such a huge priority for former President Trump. And then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – I think his line was, leave no vacancy behind. So I wonder just what the orbit of vacancies are right now that President Biden is looking at to fill. How many seats does he have?
TOTENBERG: He has 12 court of appeals seats, and in all, about a hundred judicial seats, federal judicial seats. As – try as they might, there are a lot of people who’ve been waiting to retire until Trump was gone, Democratic appointees and some who were appointed by Republicans, too. And there are some in the wings there that they know about who haven’t formally announced it yet.
DAVIS: Have you all seen a shift in the politics of judges? And by that, I mean the right has always focused for a very long time on the importance of getting conservatives or people they see as allies onto the court. Do you see that kind of focus-shifting on the left? Are Democrats as intense about getting their judges onto the court as we saw from Republicans in recent years?
JOHNSON: You know, Sue, I do see a change there. I remember doing a piece around the time that Justice Anthony Kennedy retired, and some Democrats had done a focus group around the country with voters who said they were interested in the law. And many, many voters could not name more than one justice on the Supreme Court.
That has changed. That has changed dramatically. There’s a lot of money, millions of dollars, flowing into progressive groups who are advocating on judge issues. In the past, Democrats who were interested in social issues seem to focus on their particular social issue, not focused on the fact that judges rule on the panoply of them, from the environment to civil rights to immigration. And so I think that is now starting to change, but it sure took a long time – more than a generation.
TOTENBERG: Absolutely. And, of course, one of the interesting things is that they have competing things on the agenda. Republicans really didn’t have programs they wanted to pass – not much.
TOTENBERG: Their main focus was on getting judges through. That was Mitch…
TOTENBERG: …McConnell’s pet project. From the time he was a student, he was interested in this. And so you’re going to see the calendar, the legislative calendar, only has so much give, and the time is now to get it done. And Ron Klain, who is the chief of staff for President Biden, was counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee for a long time for Biden. He has this lesson imprinted on his brain. Whether they can get it done with all the things that – other things they want to do – that remains to be seen.
DAVIS: That’s a really good point, Nina, because you’re absolutely right. Like, McConnell cleared the legislative calendar to focus on judicial nominations. But Democrats have this, like, very robust legislative program that they want to get through. And time is, you know, very important in the Senate. It’s very finite, so they’re going to have to balance that.
Carrie, you’ve done some recent reporting about progressive groups who are pushing Biden to consider judges on this diversity question, but not just when we talk about race or other issues – about their backgrounds, where they come from.
JOHNSON: Yeah. There’s long been a pipeline where people representing corporations, people who have been prosecutors seem to get picked by home state senators and White Houses of both parties for these lifetime tenured federal judgeships. And there’s been an acknowledgement just in the last few years that it’s really important to have civil rights lawyers with those kinds of backgrounds on the bench. It’s really important to have public defenders.
One thing I notice from the Biden list this week was that three people who had served as public defenders in the past have now been nominated by President Biden to serve lifetime tenure judgeships. That is going to make a difference. In the past, we have seen it make a difference, but it doesn’t happen so often.
Here in the – in Washington, D.C., on the district court is Judge Amit Mehta, who used to be with the public defender service here in D.C. I have noticed in particular cases in his handling of issues that it makes a difference for someone with a defense background. Remember, he’s the judge who called in the Justice Department to explain why one of the prosecutors had done a “60 Minutes” interview on the January 6 Capitol riots cases.
These kinds of things actually make a difference in the real world. And there’s an acknowledgement now that the Biden administration needs to recognize that and promote that.
TOTENBERG: The interesting thing, though, is that on the far left, there are groups that are saying, you should never pick anybody who’s ever represented a corporation. And in the real world, people who are public defenders, even for a long time, like 10 years – at some point, they have in their pasts worked for law firms. And law firms represent corporations and people who are sometimes not very attractive. And it’s just part of what you do, among other things, to put your kids through college, for example.
JOHNSON: As with so many things in life, it’s a balance. Yeah. And I do want to point out that I think there is one thing that civil rights activists now are looking for from the next wave of Biden nominees. That is that there are a number of judgeships open in the South, in the southern part of the country. Half of the Black population of the country resides in the South.
And Leslie Proll, who’s working with the NAACP on judicial nominations, says that only five of those appellate seats currently in the South are held by Black judges. So there’s a real opportunity for Biden to make a stamp on these soon-to-be-open judgeships in the American South, too.
DAVIS: As you look at this first group of nominees, do you see a group of people that could get bipartisan support in the Senate? Or should we be bracing for sort of very partisan, party-line votes on this question in the Senate?
TOTENBERG: What do you think, Carrie?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, just looking at Ketanji Brown Jackson, she’s not always played to type. You know, the case that she’s most famous for is her case basically saying the president is not a king in the context of the litigation over whether former White House Counsel Don McGahn would have to testify to Congress or provide documents to Congress with respect to former President Trump. But she actually ruled on behalf of the Trump administration in a border wall case that came before her.
And she also has some civil rights rulings, including an important one involving a deaf inmate in the D.C. jail who was not able to communicate with his jailers. So the Senate, as you know, Sue, better than we do…
JOHNSON: …Is a fractious place right now. But in the old days, some of these nominees would have received, I think…
DAVIS: Would have sailed, yeah.
JOHNSON: …Significant bipartisan support. Yeah.
DAVIS: All right. Well, Nina and Carrie, thanks so much. Hopefully you can start your weekends a little early today.
TOTENBERG: (Laughter) Thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
DAVIS: We’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, what the leaders of the Green New Deal are saying about Biden’s infrastructure plan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIS: And we’re back and joined now by Danielle Kurtzleben and Scott Detrow. Hello, friends.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey there.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hello.
DAVIS: So earlier this week, President Biden unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. We talked a lot about it on the pod this week in our Wednesday episode. But, Danielle, you’ve been focused on reporting out how progressive Democrats are looking at this plan. We heard earlier in the podcast this week that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, obviously a very well-known progressive, called the size of the bill disappointing. But you’ve been reporting that she and other progressives behind the Green New Deal also see this plan as potentially a big win.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah, I talked to some of the biggest proponents of the Green New Deal. The words they used were both disappointing and victory. Sometimes…
DAVIS: (Laughter) That’s very Democrat – big D – of them.
KURTZLEBEN: The way to explain that further is this – is that progressives are saying, look; this proposal is nowhere near big enough – this Biden proposal, like you said, 2 trillion over eight years. The ballpark for this plus the additional infrastructure proposal that is coming is – what? – 3 or 4 trillion over that time period. What these progressives want is 10 trillion over 10 years, 1 trillion a year. That is a lot.
DAVIS: That’s a lot of money.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes, it very much is. So no, it’s not as big as they want. But what they have said – and there is a compelling case for this – that the Green New Deal and broader climate activism around it from groups like the Sunrise Movement, for example, have succeeded in sort of pushing the climate change Overton window much wider open, much further to the left, and reframing the discussion. Here is one thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, representative from New York who sponsored the Green New Deal, told me about it.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: As much as people – you know, I think some parts of the party try to avoid saying Green New Deal and really dance around and try to not use that term. Ultimately, the framework, I think, has been adopted.
DAVIS: It really did change the conversation, though, right? I mean, she came into Congress a freshman lawmaker who normally nobody cares about and unveiled this policy idea. And it’s, like, all people talk about in the context of climate change now. You – it’s hard to have a policy conversation about climate change and not say Green New Deal.
DETROW: And it’s a huge chunk of the proposals that are in Biden’s climate package and what he put forward this week and what he’s been talking about as a whole, even though, you know, Biden is one of those people who, as Ocasio-Cortez said right there, doesn’t like to use the framing because it has, you know, kind of negative political connotations with some of the more swing voters and certainly Republicans of the world.
But yeah, it’s a big chunk of the policies he’s talking about. And I think she’s right that the conversation has been reframed, and Joe Biden talks about climate change more than any other previous president has. And you have seen a real push from the administration to – you know, whole-of-government approach is the wonky term they keep using. You know, each department is working over the next few years on ways to lower carbon emissions. It’s not just EPA and interior and energy, which are usually what you hear about.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. And one additional thing to sort of think about very broad-level in terms of how the conversation has been reframed is that, you know, if you look at what the Green New Deal says, I mean, some of these things are not even directly climate plans…
KURTZLEBEN: …For example, a job guarantee, right? But the idea was to link climate and the economy very explicitly. And in Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s mind and many of these activists’ minds, that’s not just a framing thing. The two things are connected – that consumption that, quite frankly, capitalism created climate change, and so the market isn’t necessarily going to fix things. You need to actually change the economy and how the economy works in order to fix climate change.
DAVIS: We talked in the podcast earlier this week with Scott about the components of the Biden plan affecting electric cars. That is something that climate change advocates support and like. Are there other components of this plan, Danielle, that these activists point to that they support as part of this goal of confronting climate change?
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. So there’s quite a bit in this plan, for example, about affordable housing, expanding housing access. And this is one of those examples of something that is economic that can also be…
DAVIS: I don’t necessarily think of as a climate change issue.
KURTZLEBEN: Right – yeah, that one doesn’t necessarily think of. But, you know, for example, making sure that you build housing and retrofit existing housing and other buildings to make sure they’re energy-efficient – that’s just one example.
Another thing is this idea of environmental justice, which – it’s not a concept that Ocasio-Cortez or the Green New Deal invented. It’s a concept that’s been around with environmental activists for a while. But it’s definitely a concept that the Green New Deal, I think you can make the case, very much mainstreamed the idea that you target some of your climate remedies towards the communities that have dealt with the brunt of it – people who are living in low-lying areas and often disadvantaged communities, communities of color who have borne the brunt of, for example, pollution – that sort of thing.
DETROW: So, Sue, the way that one of the White House’s top climate advisers, Ali Zaidi – he’s, like, the No. 2 to Gina McCarthy – put it – it was this – he was talking yesterday – this incredibly tortured football metaphor that kind of works…
DETROW: …And makes sense and also made me think that, you know, he approaches football the way I used to play football video games – just, like, trying to throw the ball, like, 80 yards down the field and failing.
DAVIS: As far as you can (laughter).
DETROW: Yeah. So he said that, like, if you think of – the administration is thinking of this like running plays and passing plays. There’s running plays to keep making forward progress, keep lowering emissions by, like, you know, slowly expanding wind energy and solar energy – right? – getting more states to put mandates in place, saying you have to have X amount of clean energy going forward. That’s kind of, like, linear, steady progress.
Then he talked about a lot of the money for research and development as big passing plays – you know, spend a lot of money, get some aggressive research going, and maybe there’s a huge breakthrough that leads to just a massive reduction and massive change in the way that energy is generated down the line.
DAVIS: It is interesting to hear the way that climate is talked about in the current context because Democrats and the president don’t seem to focus on climate change as sort of what it’s doing to the planet or the environment. It’s really talking about it as a jobs issue – like, climate change will open up job opportunities, and these are growth industries, and we will be able to repurpose people’s jobs into new industries. And I wonder if – I mean, it seems like that’s clearly maybe a more compelling selling point to the public than focusing on the environment.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, it is. And, I mean, I looked back at, for example, Hillary Clinton’s climate pitch that she put out when she was running for president in 2016, and then I looked at Joe Biden’s. And I just did a, you know, control-F (laughter) – I looked for the word jobs, right?
KURTZLEBEN: And in the Clinton proposal, I found the word jobs twice. In the Biden proposal, I found it 29 times. Now…
KURTZLEBEN: …This is not a scientific study, but it is quite clear that the focus has shifted from save the environment because we need to save the environment for our children and also perhaps there can be jobs to this is explicitly a thing that can benefit you, first of all, by making you not have to breathe pollution but also very much by giving you a better job. And look; that debate over whether Biden’s plan will do that is still being fought out with unions and other things. But this is the case the progressives are making.
DAVIS: Scott, I wonder if you can sort of connect two things for me or how the White House sees it – is on the one hand this week, the president is making this case for this massive government intervention on this infrastructure plan that would obviously affect potentially climate change but the economy overall.
And yet, today, we’re getting pretty good economic news, right? Jobs numbers are going up. Unemployment’s going down. The country does seem to be coming through the pandemic. You can sort of potentially see the light at the end of the economic tunnel here. It doesn’t feel as intense as it did at the height of it. And I wonder if the White House sees that as helping or hurting its case, that this kind of massive government intervention is needed in the economy right now.
DETROW: Yeah, I think a couple things. First of all, like literally every president before him, Joe Biden is going to be happy to take credit for things that are happening and say, it’s exactly because of the policies that I’m enacting, right? You know, there was…
DETROW: …A pushback on that massive stimulus proposal saying, you know, this isn’t needed at this point; things are starting to get better. And the administration made the case that, you know – they’re making two cases here. The first is that the improvement is not going to be even, just like the economic growth of the past decade has not been even. Biden and his economic advisers are arguing that right now people who are well off are continuing to be well off and that there is a huge gap, particularly in some of the industries that were just decimated by the pandemic and will remain decimated.
The second point is that the last law was about the immediate short-term recovery. This is about more long-term growth. And Biden is arguing that he is trying to deal with huge areas of the country that have just been neglected for decades and decades and decades.
DAVIS: All right. I think we’re going to take another quick break. But when we get back, it’s time for Can’t Let It Go.
And we’re back. And it’s time to end the show like we do every week – with Can’t Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just can’t stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Danielle, what can’t you let go this week?
KURTZLEBEN: This is firmly in the otherwise category, but I still can’t let it go. This is a story that I read this week. It popped up in a few newspapers – I’m going to be referencing The New York Times version – about a man in Las Cruces, N.M., unnamed, who stopped at a grocery store, went in for 10 minutes, came out to the car, started to drive away and then realized there was something in the back seat. And what was in the back seat?
DAVIS: Was it a murderer?
DAVIS: This cuts like the story of your childhood tales (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: OK, actually, you know, as I started doing…
KURTZLEBEN: As I started telling this story, I didn’t even think that I was taking it in that direction. No, it was not that.
DAVIS: It’s like an R.L. Stine plotline…
DAVIS: …But go on (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: No, it was actually a swarm of 15,000 bees.
DETROW: That’s worse.
DAVIS: How is that even possible?
KURTZLEBEN: Right? I know. So the rest of the story is that the guy didn’t know what to do. He calls 911. The fire department comes and specifically…
DAVIS: 911’s like, we can’t help you, man (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: No, as it turns out, they could because an off-duty firefighter had a hobby of beekeeping. So he brought his beekeeping stuff and took out the bees. Now, the explanation for how the bees got there, I guess, you know, in 10 minutes, is that bees sometimes travel just in full swarms following the queen. So they can, I guess, all land in one place. Now, two more really important things here. One, it was 3 1/2 pounds of bees.
DETROW: Oh, my God.
KURTZLEBEN: Just think about…
DAVIS: That’s a lot of bees.
KURTZLEBEN: I know (laughter).
DAVIS: So they think that – did he – he, like, left his windows cracked, I’m presuming.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. I apologize. Key fact – he left the windows open.
DAVIS: Are we sure it wasn’t a murderer who uses bees as his weapon?
DETROW: And then there was a hook hanging from the car.
DAVIS: From the rearview mirror.
KURTZLEBEN: But also, look, the bees were safe. That’s what I think is lovely here. Oh, by the way, the car was borrowed from a friend, so…
KURTZLEBEN: …(Laughter) Also imagine trying to explain that to your bestie, that there’s honey in the steering column. So anyway.
DAVIS: You also – you can’t kill bees. They’re like – they’re endangered. We need the bees.
DAVIS: So it’s good that they were actually saved.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. No, that’s the reason that this is a happy story in the end. The bees were saved. They – they’re all doing well at this firefighter’s bee boxes, bee house, wherever he keeps the bees (laughter). So…
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, beehive. That’s the word.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. Sue, what can’t you let go?
DAVIS: The thing I can’t let go is former Speaker John Boehner. He’s got a book coming out. It’s his memoir of his time in Washington. Politico already had a preview of it today. You know, he’s really spilling the tea on a lot of his former colleagues and what he really thought about them.
He also, you know, as many people who are doing memoirs do, they do a book-on-tape version, where they read their – you know, they read it in their own voice. And Axios, which is a news outlet, obtained an audio clip of Boehner reading the book in which he had said that when he was taping it, he would often have a glass of wine or two and…
DAVIS: …Sometimes diverge from the actual text of the book to sort of drop in his thoughts in real time about certain people. And they obtained this audio. And – just have a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, “ON THE HOUSE: A WASHINGTON MEMOIR”)
JOHN BOEHNER: Freedom means you can be a genius and invent new products that make you millions of dollars and helps millions of people. It means you’re free to work your way to becoming the first in your family to go to college. It means you’re free to reach as high as you want, no matter where you came from, even if you’re a little kid sweeping a bar out in southwest Ohio. Take it from me. You’ll never know where you’ll end up. That’s freedom. I’ll raise a glass to that any day. P.S. – Ted Cruz, go f*** yourself.
DAVIS: Can’t let it go for a couple of reasons. One, I mean, Ted Cruz is just a man in Washington who just never seems to have a friend. I mean, any chance for someone to take a swipe at this guy, they really seem to do it. But Boehner’s unbridled dislike of him, you know, it’s just pretty intense and pretty funny and also kind of makes you want to listen to the book versus read it.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah.
DAVIS: I wonder if the publisher is going to leave in these asides or edit them out. I don’t know, but it’s probably a good way to sell audio books.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, sell them for extra. Get the special edition.
DETROW: I mean, can we also – and I’ve been on both sides of it. You know, that was such a clear I-have-had-two-or-three-drinks tone.
DETROW: (Laughter) And like – you know?
DAVIS: Yeah, shouldn’t have had that third glass of Merlot while I’m reading the book.
KURTZLEBEN: He sounds like he’s kicking back in a leather chair, holding a cigar and just sort of holding forth – like, you can just see the scene where it seems like he’s reading this from.
DAVIS: Danielle, that is literally the cover of the book.
DAVIS: He’s sitting in a leather-backed chair, holding a glass of red wine with a lit cigarette in an ashtray. That is, like, the image they’re using to sell this book. So.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, perfection.
DAVIS: Scott, what can’t you let go this week?
DETROW: This is – I first saw this last Sunday. It delighted me. I have watched it maybe 50 times since then. It comes from the Twitter feed of our old friend, Sam Sanders…
DAVIS: I’ve heard of him.
DETROW: …Who tweeted – it’s a TikTok video of someone reading “No Scrubs” in the style of Maya Angelou. And it’s perfect.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
EMMANUEL REDDISH: (In the style of Maya Angelou) And no, I don’t want no scrub.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
REDDISH: (In the style of Maya Angelou) A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me. Hanging out the passenger…
DETROW: (Laughter) It’s so good.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
REDDISH: …(In the style of Maya Angelou) Side of his best friend’s ride, trying to holla at me.
DAVIS: That is perfect.
DETROW: I – it might be better than the actual song. I love it.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, I think it is.
DAVIS: There is nothing TikTok can’t do.
DETROW: I still don’t understand it. I still just wait for it to be filtered through making its way to Twitter, but I appreciate it.
DAVIS: All right. I think that’s a wrap for us today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Maturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Oby. I’m Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
KURTZLEBEN: I’m Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.
DETROW: And I’m Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA’S “TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)”)
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