Mar 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden’s balancing act: Embrace swing voters without shunning liberals

President Biden is seen discussing police reform during a visit to New York City last month.

President Biden discussed police reform during his visit to New York City last month. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden is looking for ways to distance himself from progressives over how to combat crime without abandoning his campaign pledges, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Biden's challenge is convincing swing voters he understands their concerns about rising crime rates without alienating Democratic Party activists who blame law enforcement for violating civil rights. As a candidate, he vowed to fight for police reform.

  • The president's balancing act is testing the patience of some outside progressives. They want to see him move more forcefully to embrace police reform and fully re-engage his discussions with them.
  • Biden will use a portion of his State of the Union address to emphasize that he doesn't want to defund the police, according to an administration official.
  • Instead, he wants to put more police with better training and more accountability onto streets and into neighborhoods to help rebuild trust.
  • Polls show Americans have become increasingly worried about crime over the last several months.
  • A growing share also says it wants more funding for police departments, according to work by Pew Research.

What they're saying: The Rev. Al Sharpton, who's long focused on civil and racial justice, said Biden should establish a commission on police reform that brings progressives and police back to the table.

  • "Now, they’re going the other way and only meeting with police," he said. "Proper policing is where police and community are brought together."
  • "We are not anti-police; we are anti-police brutality, and we don't want the conversation to become anti-us," he told Axios.

In February, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) told reporters she won't be shying away from using the language "defund the police" when pushing for her idea of police reform.

  • She reiterated her commitment, despite some colleagues having privately asked her to stop.
  • Bush was an organizer and activist pushing for comprehensive police reform in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after a Black teenager, Mike Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer.

Between the lines: While the White House plans to continue to consult with civil rights groups, it may not be enough to satisfy all of the activists.

  • Administration officials will also continue to meet families of the victims of unlawful police violence as well as law enforcement organizations.
  • "The President, along with the overwhelming majority of Americans, knows that we can and must have a criminal justice system that both protects public safety and upholds our founding ideals of equal treatment under the law," said Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman.
  • "In fact, those two goals go hand-in-hand," he said.

The big picture: Biden had proposed establishing a police reform task force but scrapped it last year when Congress was trying to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

  • As Axios reported, even before the commission was scrapped, several racial justice leaders were skeptical of its efficacy and the president's intentions, and one leading Black Lives Matter activist turned down an offer to be part of it.
  • "The White House must have a more balanced approach, where they deal with public safety and police reform, because we cannot act as though police criminality is not a crime," Sharpton told Axios.
  • None of Democrats' police reform packages has made it through the Senate to be signed into law, in part because there wasn't enough input from the police side — only the community side, said a person familiar with the White House's thinking on reform.

Go deeper: The president’s trip to New York City last month was a preview of the emerging strategy.

  • He met with Mayor Eric Adams, who rode a law-and-order message to victory.
  • He also acknowledged voters' concerns about crime and pledged to help police fight it.
  • In addition, the president pushed for more funding for police — as well as for social services programs — but reiterated his opposition to liberals' idea of reform.

Be smart: “The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said at the time.

  • “It’s to give you the tools, the training, the funding to be partners, to be protectors.”
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