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Biden tackles crime, again — but this time he's in charge

Analysis: It's an unusual step for a president to pause his agenda to point out what's going wrong in the country. But crime rates are impossible to ignore.
US President Joe Biden  COVID-19 response & vaccinations
President Biden give remarks on COVID-19 response & vaccinations at the White House on June 18, 2021.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — For decades, crime has paid for Joe Biden — at least, trying to crack down on it has.

His signature legislative achievement as a senator was the 1994 anti-crime law that put more cops on the beat, established stiffer sentencing for drug offenses, created incentives for the construction of more prisons, and temporarily banned so-called assault weapons.

As a presidential candidate last year, Biden distanced himself from fellow Democrats — including some of his own aides — who clamored for "defunding the police" by highlighting his proposal to put more money into hiring cops. That decision helped Biden withstand a barrage of soft-on-crime attacks from his rival, then-President Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, Biden will focus Americans on rising rates of violent crime, so that he can outline his strategy for reversing them in a speech at the White House.

He plans to tie the spike to Covid-19 and guns, according to White House officials.

"With the secondary consequences of the pandemic and the proliferation of illegal guns over the same period, we have seen increased violence over the past year and a half," a White House fact sheet on Biden's strategy says. "Homicides rose 30 percent and gun assaults rose 8 percent in large cities."

It's an unusual step for a president to pause his agenda to point out what's going wrong in the country he runs. But the issue is becoming impossible to ignore, and it gives Biden an opportunity to return to comfortably familiar political ground between Republicans and progressive Democrats.

It's not just the substance and the rhetoric that send a message. The timing of the Wednesday afternoon speech falls in the shadow of a New York City mayoral race in which crime was a priority issue for Democratic primary voters.

Much of what Biden is proposing is already in the works.

For example, one point of emphasis will be the American Rescue Plan's $350 billion pot of money for state and local governments. They can use the money to beef up their police departments, just as they could when the law was enacted earlier this year.

"This is a historic amount of funding that the president is making available to cities and states through the American Rescue Plan to invest in a range of tools to reduce gun violence in their communities and make their communities safer,” an administration official told reporters Tuesday night.

Those tools include money from the plan being used to support community violence intervention programs.

The strategy is wide-ranging enough to include housing assistance for people who have been incarcerated. The administration is also trying to remind the public that Biden has taken some executive action on gun violence and that gun control legislation is stalled in the Senate.

The risk for Biden is if violent crime rates rise despite his strategy. Data suggest that no one really knows why crime rates fluctuate. And yet any president is certain to take credit or get blamed for trend lines on crime.

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That helps explain why it's in Biden's interest to tackle the issue publicly right now. In the past, as a member of the Senate or as President Barack Obama's vice president, he wasn't on the hook for the outcome of policies. Now, it's his show.

If he were quiet on the topic, he wouldn't be able to claim that his policies worked later on. And Biden would get blamed for failures, regardless of whether he shined a spotlight on the issue.

Tommy Pigott, rapid response director for the Republican National Committee, often notes crime statistics and anecdotes in emails that blame "defund the police" efforts for the crime wave.

"It’s time Democrat[ic] officials listen to the American people, stand up to radical far-left groups, and support policies that create safe communities," he wrote this week.

That's exactly what Biden's strategy seems aimed at doing.