Before Joe Biden won the Democratic primary in 2020, it was an open question whether his past handling of crime would be an electoral liability. He was known in the Senate as a “tough on crime” zealot. George H.W. Bush, who won the White House after aligning his Democratic opponent with a Black man who raped and murdered a woman, was too lenient for Biden’s taste. As senator Biden co-authored Bill Clinton’s then-popular 1994 crime bill, but as vice president watched it get thrown in Hillary Clinton’s face during her 2016 campaign. The turnaround made him contrite. “It was a big mistake that was made,” Biden said at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in 2019, referring to the racist crack-versus-powder cocaine sentencing disparities he’d once championed. “I haven’t always been right.”
It didn’t end up hurting him, though. Primary voters in 2020 were more interested in choosing the nominee best suited to beat Donald Trump than docking the candidates for their past conduct. Still, the prospect of blowback changed Biden’s approach. His criminal justice platform emphasized diversion over imprisonment and called for an end to mass incarceration.
The president is now facing a new political context. Over the last two years, cities across the United States have seen historically large spikes in multiple categories of crime, including homicides in many places. This pattern defies the typical scapegoats — Democrats in charge, so-called progressive prosecutors, an alleged lack of financial investment in armed law enforcement — but has not deterred critics from invoking them anyway. One result is a national souring on the reformist energy that shaped Biden’s primary run and seemed poised to revolutionize the legal landscape after the summer of 2020, when protests gripped the United States.
The sense that things are unusually bad — even if they are happening during a multi-decade downward trend in crime rates, and have likely been exacerbated by a global pandemic — seems to be costing the president politically as well. The results of an ABC/Ipsos poll published on Monday showed that just 36 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of crime, down from 43 percent in late October.
These numbers are consistent with the president’s generally low approval ratings, which were already making Democrats worried that the 2022 midterms and 2024 general elections could be catastrophic for the party. But that remains to be seen. What the president’s low marks on crime mean for criminal justice reform is more evident, and has been for a while.
It was evident when a negotiation team of Democratic and Republican senators failed to reach swift terms on a federal police reform bill last June, a time when most of them seemed, at least outwardly, to be on board. The situation looked even more discouraging when months passed without any clear progress, and Democratic leaders joined Republicans in blaming their candidates’ 2020 underperformance on calls to “defund the police” — a position that virtually none of them endorsed. The nail in the coffin for a federal bill came after Democrats won control of the White House and Congress, and Republicans shifted their priorities from governing to winning back power. Tim Scott, the GOP’s lead negotiator on the bill, left the table in September after smearing one of his own ideas — making federal funds for local cops contingent on them meeting federal standards — as leftist radicalism, effectively killing hope for its passage.
But the slow death of criminal justice reform has also been evident in how Biden has steered local harm reduction efforts and paced his use of executive power. He has urged localities to use federal COVID funds to hire more police officers, encouraging cops as the go-to fix for pandemic-era social dysfunction. And despite early assurances that he wanted to use his clemency powers generously and soon, he hasn’t yet. His administration has also dismissed calls to place decisions about pardons and commutations in the hands of a clemency board, ensuring that the personal political fallout he fears remains likely.
Not coincidentally, this all happened as public opinion turned against the protest movement that had become the Democrats’ main source of accountability. The social pressures that sent lawmakers scrambling to take action were defanged. Status quo politics took over again. Crime became the dominant argument against radical reforms in many cities. At the federal level, its prominence became the tacit justification for neglecting tamer ones, too.
If this trend reverses, it will do so in defiance of everything the last two years have taught us about how crime shapes the political conversation in this country. We can’t count on another flukey, conditional, historically large protest movement to light a fire under lawmakers any time soon (though the conditions for it, including stubbornly consistent rates of police killings, are still in place). We can’t expect a Democratic leadership class that folded so easily under the right’s false characterizations of their party’s criminal justice platform to own the issue. And we can’t expect a president with underwater approval ratings on crime to encourage the idea that the cops are a serious problem. Instead, what looked last summer like a historic reconsideration of how Americans are policed is looking more like the same dismally familiar pattern.