The Memo: Crime puts Biden, Psaki on defense
President Biden is on the defensive over crime — and so too is one of his key aides.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended herself and the administration at Monday’s media briefing after earlier comments she made during a podcast drew criticism.
Meanwhile, Biden himself will go to New York City on Thursday, where he will meet with Mayor Eric Adams (D) to talk about measures to combat gun crime. The trip seems carefully designed to show the president is taking crime seriously.
Adams, a former New York City police officer, won the Democratic mayoral nomination last year over several more progressive rivals. His victory was ascribed, at least in part, to his tough-on-crime rhetoric.
But Adams is now grappling with public unease fueled by high-profile violent crimes, including the murder of two police officers while answering a domestic disturbance call in Harlem on Jan. 21.
Biden is facing similar challenges on a national basis.
At least 16 American cities hit new peaks in their homicide rates last year.
Nationwide, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2021 reached 73, according to FBI data.
The 2021 figure was the highest since 1995, with the unique exception of 2001, when many police officers died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It’s not only that many police officers have been killed. It’s also the large number of innocent bystanders who have been killed throughout the country,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communication. “That is the thing that makes it so problematic for the president and the Democrats. It’s all over the country.”
Taken all together, it’s a complicated political conundrum for the administration.
Democrats have been vulnerable to being seen as soft on crime for at least a generation. Way back in 1988, crime was the issue that was perceived to have sunk Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in his quest for the White House.
In an interview with The Hill last year, Dukakis warned today’s Democrats not to repeat his mistakes, and described the ‘Defund the Police’ movement as “nuts.”
But even though Biden has always been clear about his opposition to defunding the police, crime remains a vulnerability for him.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll in mid-December indicated that crime was one of Biden’s weakest issues. Only 36 percent of adults approved of how he was handing crime, in contrast to the 61 percent who disapproved.
Meanwhile, conservatives and some media outlets have long been adept at capitalizing on public disquiet about crime, to the chagrin of Democrats.
Crime plays into “political sloganeering — and Fox News and the Republicans are very good at it,” said progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini.
These larger points were the backdrop to the controversy centered on Psaki in recent days — a furor that the White House plainly thinks is being ginned up in bad faith by ideological enemies.
During an appearance last week on the “Pod Save America” podcast, which is hosted by former aides to President Obama, Psaki appeared to glance up at a TV screen showing several networks, including Fox News.
“On Fox, is Jeanine Pirro talking about ‘soft-on-crime consequences.’ I mean, what? What does that even mean?” Psaki asked with a laugh. “There’s an alternate universe on some coverage.”
Many Democratic supporters heard that remark as a blast at Fox for the amount of coverage it devotes to crime, and the apparent eagerness with which it assigns culpability to Biden.
But critics — including the Republican National Committee — contended she was taking public concern about crime too lightly.
The National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, Patrick Yoes, released a statement Monday afternoon saying that it was “wrong — very wrong — for Ms. Psaki to suggest that violent crime in our country is of no concern or just to laugh it off.”
He added, “Pretending violent crimes are part of some other reality will not help victims.”
Asked about the remarks by a Fox News correspondent, Jacqui Heinrich, at Monday’s briefing, Psaki defended herself — and her boss.
“What I was speaking to was a chyron on Fox News, since you raised it, which suggested this administration is soft on crime with no basis,” she said.
Psaki went on to note Biden’s forthcoming visit to New York, as well as the money provided in the American Rescue Plan for local authorities to hire more police officers.
She said Biden’s proposed budget provided even more funds for this purpose before adding, “And the other fact that is never talked about in the Fox packages … is the fact that gun crime is a major driver of crime across the country.”
The Psaki-related controversy will likely not last more than 24 hours. But Biden’s problem is a bigger one.
If being seen as “soft-on-crime” poses obvious and grave risks for any Democrat, including Biden, the danger of overcorrecting is a very real one too.
When Biden was running for president in 2020, the nation was roiled by the murder of George Floyd by then-police officer Derek Chauvin. Protests about the killing, which was particularly grotesque for the manner in which it was carried out, were huge and drew notably diverse crows.
The moment sparked calls, especially among the Democratic and liberal base, for fundamental police reform. Those demands have largely gone unmet, to the frustration of activists.
Biden has already stepped away from his campaign trail pledge to set up a national police oversight commission. Congressional efforts to enact bipartisan police reform last year also fell apart.
That leaves Biden in a bind — eager to show he takes crime seriously and is moving to combat it, without appearing tone-deaf to the demands of reformists.
Some, even on the left, suggest that the crime issue will fade over time.
Psaki herself noted that the increase in the murder rate first manifested itself in 2020, when former President Trump was still in office.
But that recent history matters little now, when Biden is faced with yet another tough challenge and no obvious solution.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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