Rising violent crime poses new challenge for White House
President Biden will detail his administration’s crime prevention strategy on Wednesday in a high-profile address that comes as a series of major cities see spikes in crime.
Violent crime rates are still well below the rates of previous decades, but the jump has prompted concern in locales in different parts of the country and has become a part of the debate over electing a new mayor in New York City.
It is also a potential problem for the White House and congressional Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
The murder rate in the United States rose from 5 murders per 100,000 people in 2019 to roughly 6.2 per 100,000 in 2020, according to preliminary data from the FBI. That is a significant jump, though the rate was closer to 10 as recently as 1991.
That rise has continued in the early part of 2021 as Biden took office and the country steadily returned to normal from the pandemic. The New York Times reported a sample of 37 cities with data for the first three months of the year saw an 18 percent increase in murders compared to the same time period in 2020.
More than 50 people were shot in Chicago over the past weekend, and New York City has seen an increase in the rate of shootings in early 2021 compared to past years.
“A rising crime rate is always a practical challenge,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser in the Clinton White House. “I don't think anyone would have predicted six months ago how central it would become to the New York mayoral race. Along with immigration, it's not a problem the administration can ignore, especially in a midterm election.”
“There's a danger of overreaction, but there's also a danger of underreaction,” Galston added.
The White House was mum about specifics that will come from Biden on Wednesday, but sources said the president is likely to highlight funding for law enforcement and Justice Department initiatives to cut down on criminal activity.
“It’s an opportunity for the president to speak to what he’s going to do to help address that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “And as we’ve seen around the country, it’s a concern of many Americans. Republicans, but also Democrats, too. Not necessarily through a partisan lens.”
Former President Trump sought to frame crime as a central issue in his 2020 campaign. Trump cast himself as a tough-on-crime candidate, trumpeting his support for law enforcement and calling for crackdowns on protests as unrest rippled through the country after the murder of George Floyd.
Trump would frequently cite rising crime rates in cities during campaign rallies, blaming Democratic leadership in urban areas for the issues and casting Biden as soft. The Trump campaign repeatedly questioned whether Biden would condemn riots and looting and attempted to tie him closely to progressive Democrats who supported defunding the police.
The Trump campaign simultaneously offered a contradictory message about Biden by highlighting his support for the 1994 crime bill, which led to a sharp increase in incarceration rates for people of color and Black Americans in particular.
The Biden campaign responded by distancing itself from the “defund the police” movement, and then-candidate Biden spoke out against violence in Minneapolis, Kenosha, Wis., and elsewhere even as he supported the broader protests against racial injustice.
In recent weeks, Republican leaders have sought to highlight the issue again, blaming Democrats for the rising crime rates.
In a speech on the floor late last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of contributing to the increase in crime because of the defund the police movement,
“Crime and delinquency have many causes. In some ways, the pandemic likely contributed,” McConnell said. “But it is impossible to ignore that these terrible trends are coming precisely as so-called progressives have decided it’s time to denounce and defund local law enforcement.
He pointed to decreased police funding in cities like Seattle and Minneapolis and even in Washington, D.C.
“These bone-headed decisions are the direct result of an anti-law enforcement fad that has swept through the political left like a wildfire,” McConnell said.
Some Democratic strategists shrug off the GOP arguments and attacks.
“Nothing will stop it from being a talking point, but the Biden folks do a really good job of knowing when to engage and push back on things that are actually having an impact versus things that are just in the GOP derp bucket of things they yell about but don't actually impact things in the end,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.
“Now crime is an actual thing, but it's mostly a result of bigger picture economic slowdowns and shutdowns over the past year, and addressing it in the context of what's actually happening and not engaging the bad faith Fox News version is how you handle it,” he added.
“So what the Biden folks are doing this week is addressing it, laying out the facts and their plan, but while keeping the main focus on economy and COVID is both the right policy and the right politics.”
Still, behind the scenes, some Democrats say it does have the ability to hurt their party.
“I’ve always suspected that in the end, everything is going to come down to the economy when it comes to midterm elections. But there’s no doubt in my mind that for a certain type of Democratic voter, this crime wave is going to be very problematic and the White House is going to have to find a way to deal with it,” one prominent Democratic strategist said.
The strategist added that it also “has the potential to roil the party” because of the various viewpoints among Democrats on defunding the police.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who narrowly won reelection in her purple Virginia district, blamed calls from some progressives to defund the police for the party’s performance in last year’s House races.
The issue is unlikely to subside anytime soon. Gun sales have surged under Biden, Congress appears unlikely to pass any major legislation in a bid to curb mass shootings and the partisan divide over policing could contribute to further unrest in the months to come.
“If you look at the nation’s front pages on any given day there’s a lot of coverage of crime,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who previously worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign. “There’s limits to what the president can do, but I think this is a recognition that crime is the story in a lot of states right now.”