President Joe Biden’s decision Thursday on a local crime law sends a national message to fellow Democrats about how he believes they should address Republican criticism of the nation’s rising crime rates.
Democrats have focused predominantly on police reform since the George Floyd protests reignited a national debate over race and law enforcement three years ago. But rising violent crime rates and growing perceptions of unease in major cities have prompted a chorus of party strategists and officials to call for a tougher approach to counter Republican attacks.
Biden — who has a history of pushing for stauncher crime laws — has tried to straddle the Democratic divide but was forced this week to choose sides when he said he wouldn’t allow the Washington, D.C., city government to enact laws that would lower some criminal penalties.
“If Republicans thought President Biden would hand them a wedge issue for 2024, they thought wrong,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, a veteran of former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and an architect of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s rise. “It’s going to be very hard to define him as soft on crime after he’s denounced defunding the police and reducing sentences for crimes like carjackings.”
Nothing focuses the mind of a White House gearing up for re-election like an incumbent getting only 17% of the vote, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did Tuesday in the city’s crime-focused mayoral contest.
The Washington, D.C., bill offered a slew of complications. The Democratic-controlled city council passed a sweeping criminal reform measure but then the mayor, also a Democrat, vetoed it. The council overrode her veto.