WILKES-BARRE, Pa. —
After a remarkably productive month in Congress, Democrats have major legislative accomplishments to trumpet on the campaign trail this fall. But President Biden traveled to Pennsylvania on Tuesday to address a stubborn liability for his party: crime.
His argument, however, was hardly a defensive one.
Two years after Republicans blamed Democratic candidates for activists’ calls to “defund the police,” Biden is working to flip the script and convince voters that his is the party of law and order.
To make his point, Biden noted that many Republicans have excused criminal behavior by Jan. 6 insurrectionists and defended former President Trump’s withholding of classified documents. Some Republicans have even called for defunding the FBI following its search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, he said.
“A safer America requires all of us to uphold the rule of law,” Biden said. “To this day, the MAGA Republicans in Congress defend the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6,” noting that officers died as a result of the insurrection.
“Don’t tell me you support law enforcement if you won’t condemn what happened on the 6th,” he continued. “For God’s sake, who’s side are you on? You can’t be pro-law enforcement and pro-insurrection. You can’t be a party of law and order and call the people who attacked the police on Jan. 6 ‘patriots.’”
Biden also alleged that some Republicans have suggested that political violence “might be necessary” if the Justice Department charges Trump with crimes — a possible reference to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent warning of “riots in the streets” if Trump is prosecuted.
“No one should be encouraged to use political violence,” Biden said, calling the increase in threats to FBI agents in the aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search “sickening.”
Biden maintains he has no inside knowledge of the Justice Department’s investigation of his predecessor and possible 2024 opponent. His oblique references to the investigation on Tuesday, however, made clear that he wants voters to consider whether the GOP’s recent actions match its pro-police rhetoric.
Biden drew a broader contrast between Democrats and Republicans on crime issues, highlighting his own accomplishments and sketching new plans to boost police.
He pointed to the $350 billion in 2021’s American Rescue Plan to enable local communities to keep more officers on the beat — and the fact that every Republican in Congress voted against it. And he outlined a new “Safer America Plan,” which would put an additional 100,000 police officers on the street and invest in crime prevention programs.
“When it comes to fighting crime, we know what works: officers on the street who know the neighborhood,” Biden said, noting that he has also taken executive action to end the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants by federal police officers. “And as we hire more police officers, there should be more training, more help and more accountability.”
Biden also touted bipartisan gun safety legislation enacted this summer in response to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The law, which expanded background checks on gun buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and created incentives for states to enact red flag laws, was only an incremental step, he said, but also the first tightening of the nation’s gun laws in 30 years.
“It took 30 years. And we beat the NRA!” Biden bellowed, noting that “the vast majority” of Republicans voted against it, suggesting they were “intimidated” by the NRA. “But we took on the NRA and we won. And we’re not stopping here. I’m determined to ban assault weapons in this country.”
Asserting that the 2nd Amendment is “not absolute,” Biden described how parents of children killed in Uvalde had to provide DNA samples to identify victims because of what the gunman’s AR-15 weapon did to their bodies. “What the hell’s the matter with us?” he shouted into a quiet auditorium. “It’s time to ban these weapons. We did it before, we can do it again.”
House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York zeroed in on those comments, criticizing Biden for what she called an “unconstitutional assault” on the 2nd Amendment. “Americans want law and order, not an illegal gun ban,” she said in a statement.
But she did not rebut the president’s specific charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the GOP’s incendiary rhetoric toward law enforcement. Nor did Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel in her statement on the speech.
“Biden Democrats want to destroy Pennsylvania jobs, release violent criminals back on the streets and raise taxes on hard-working Pennsylvanians,” McDaniel said. “The agenda of Biden Democrats has left Pennsylvania communities less safe, and this is why Pennsylvanians will be voting for a new direction in November.”
Even as Democrats have rebounded politically over the summer, Republicans, who have hammered Democrats at the local level as violent crime has increased, hold an 11-percentage-point edge on the issue of crime, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll this month.
Biden has been working to dig Democrats out of that political hole since long before the Justice Department investigation of Trump’s unlawful possession of classified material spilled out into the open.
In his State of the Union address in March, Biden’s declaration that he wanted to “fund the police” made headlines, even as it drew the ire of many Black voters and activists frustrated by the lack of progress on criminal justice reform. Biden followed that up during an appearance in New York alongside Mayor Eric Adams, tying Adams’ successful tough-on-crime messaging to his own.
He reprised that rhetoric again in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, describing his plan as one that will help law enforcement and allow Americans to feel safe in their communities. “When it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not defund the police. It’s fund the police,” he said.
But as much as Biden’s speech was ostensibly about addressing one of his party’s liabilities, it was also an effort to harden voters’ perceptions of GOP extremism. Americans rank “threats to democracy” as the top threat the nation faces, according to an NBC News poll released last week.
The event inside a gymnasium on the campus of Wilkes University, Biden’s first of three trips to Pennsylvania over the next week, was something of a homecoming for the Scranton, Pa., native. It was also a chance for Biden, who spent 30 minutes after the speech greeting supporters along a rope line, to escape the confines of the White House — and an opportunity for Democrats on the ballot this fall to show a willingness to campaign at the president’s side.
Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, addressed the crowd shortly before Biden took the stage and spoke about how he worked with the president to close a loophole to curtail the spread of “ghost guns,” unregistered weapons that are often used in violent crimes.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) reminded the crowd about the three pieces of landmark legislation that Biden has enacted in his first two years: the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the just-passed Inflation Reduction Act.
“The list of things we can thank him for is too long,” Casey said.