The economy is reviving. On the East Coast, the cicadas are singing their love songs. There’s a supermoon on the West Coast. We are at peace (at least with other nations). And yet President Joe Biden’s approval rating remains almost precisely where it was in the first week of his presidency — 55%.
We are so trapped in negative partisanship that the actual performance of the duties of president simply does not matter to most of the electorate. The vast majority of Democrats will support Biden no matter what, and Republicans will oppose him. From 1948 to 1992, The Wall Street Journal reports, about 18% of voters said they voted for candidates of different parties in different years. Today, fewer than 10% do. Those voters hold the fate of the nation in their hands.
As much as I disagree with a number of Biden administration policies (e.g., excessive spending, subsidizing child care instead of giving money to parents to use as they see fit, changing the standards of evidence in sexual misconduct cases, keeping the Trump administration tariffs in place), I think it’s crucial for Biden’s presidency to be successful because: 1) The country needs a breather, and 2) the Republican Party is not fit to hold power. Perhaps it may be again sometime in the future, but for now, it’s a danger to democracy.
Biden is gambling that all of his big spending programs will make life better for Americans and that they will repay his party with votes. Maybe. But there are two threats on the horizon for Democrats that they may be ill-equipped to handle.
One is inherent in the Biden gamble. His ridiculous amounts of spending, push to raise the minimum wage and the loose money posture of the Federal Reserve carry the risk of inflation, which this country hasn’t experienced for 40 years. The poor and the elderly on fixed incomes suffer most when inflation strikes, but everyone participates in the vertiginous sensation of things out of control. The only tool to fight inflation in policymakers’ arsenal is extremely unpleasant (to say nothing of politically perilous) — hiking interest rates, which often initiates a recession. The Democrats can avoid this trap if they cancel or delay some of their unnecessary spending plans.
The other huge danger for Democrats is the rising crime rate. Last year, homicides spiked by 33% across the country, the largest annual increase in 50 years. Atlanta’s murder rate increased by 38%, apparently contributing to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ decision to forego a reelection bid. New York City (43%) and Chicago (55%) also saw large jumps in homicides.
Other violent crimes like aggravated assaults and gun-related crimes also increased in 2020 according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Of 34 cities studied, 29 showed large increases.
Clearly, a national uptick in crime during the pandemic year when Trump was in the White House cannot be laid at the feet of Democrats. But the increase shows no signs of slowing down. Nor is anyone sure about what caused the crime increase. Did the pandemic drive people to murder? Other countries did not experience crime waves.
There are preliminary indications that cities that saw large protests after the murder of George Floyd also experienced increases in murders. The theory is that after widespread protests over police misconduct, police stopped enforcing the law vigorously. In Chicago, the Economist reports, 42 people were killed between May 27 and June 2, 2020, “the deadliest week in the city since 2001.” In Baltimore, following the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray, the police withdrew from active law enforcement and homicides increased by 50%. They have remained high.
Floyd’s death spurred calls for police reform, but unfortunately for Democrats, also led to calls for the abolition of police. And that definitely hurt Democrats politically. Veteran strategist James Carville, appearing on Bill Kristol’s podcast in April 2021, confided: “I mean, this ‘defund the police’ was just a terrible drag on the Democratic Party. It really was. Don’t kid yourself.”
If the “defund” language is not replaced with a better message, and crime continues to climb, Democrats will pay a steep price. Very few Americans, including African Americans who are most often victimized by overly aggressive police, want to live without police. Only 28% of African Americans in a USA Today/Ipsos poll said they were in favor of the idea of defunding the police (along with 34% of Democrats), while 37% were opposed. When asked if they supported “abolishing” the police, the number of African Americans opposing rose to 51% with 22% supporting.
Democrats badly need message discipline on this question. There is a world of reform out there waiting to be endorsed: de-escalation training, reforming qualified immunity, ending no-knock raids, making police unions accountable for police misconduct instead of taxpayers and more. But Democrats cannot lose sight of the fact that rising crime, like rising inflation, is profoundly frightening to most people, and they will punish the party that seems soft.