(CNN)President Joe Biden was not making a “human” comparison between opponents of pending voting rights bills and historical racists and segregationists in his address in Atlanta this week, the White House says.
In his speech calling for new voter protections, Biden asked whether lawmakers wanted “to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace,” “John Lewis or Bull Connor” or “Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis.”
The comparison generated some blowback afterward, but press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was not drawing a personal link between current lawmakers and notorious southern segregationists and the president of the Confederacy.
“I think everybody listening to that speech who’s speaking on the level, as my mother would say, would note that he was not comparing them as humans, he was comparing the choice to those figures in history and where they’re going to position themselves as they determine whether they’re going to support the fundamental right to vote or not,” she said Friday.
Pressed about the comparisons on Wednesday, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin acknowledged the language pushed the envelope.
“Perhaps the President went a little too far in his rhetoric,” Durbin told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Some of us do.”
Other Democrats said they thought the lines — written with the help of presidential historian Jon Meacham, according to a person familiar with the matter — may have gone over Americans’ heads.
“Nobody knows who Bull Connor is,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference. “You know, if we’re making the case to say, ‘We’re going to be with Martin Luther King or Bull Connor’ — who’s that?”
On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris defended the comparisons Thursday, calling them “apt.”
“President Biden took the, I believe, right and courageous step to say that Senate rules should not get in the way of protecting the American people’s access to the ballot. And he compared this time to a previous time in our history, which is apt for comparison,” she said.