The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Voters are worried about crime. The White House needs to listen.

President Biden listens to New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) speak during an event at New York Police Department headquarters on Feb. 3. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Voters — both Democrats and Republicans — keep telling politicians what issue matters most to them. Covid-19? Hunger? Those are big on the list, but again and again, voters say they are worried about crime.

At some point, the White House and Democrats in Congress should respond with major legislation with some rhetorical muscle behind it to address crime.

This could pay off in the midterm elections. Last year, New York City elected Eric Adams, a former cop who talked about little else during the race, as its mayor. Crime is also a serious issue in Los Angeles’s mayoral race. Politico reports: “Frustrations over crime and homelessness are setting the tone in the race to become Los Angeles’ next mayor, pushing progressive candidates like Rep. Karen Bass to set their liberal priorities aside — and bolstering the chances of a billionaire centrist in California’s most sprawling and diverse metropolis.”

Like Adams, Democratic mayoral candidate Rick Caruso seems to be the beneficiary. A recent poll puts Caruso at a statistical tie with Bass, at about 24 points each, despite the huge lead Bass held when Caruso entered the race in February.

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Caruso has spent heavily on crime-focused ads. These include, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “testimonials from former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and frequent references to Caruso’s time on the city’s police commission.” It does not matter that Caruso has, as the Times puts it, “hyped the scale of crime in the city.” What matters is that among the 38 percent of voters who say crime is their top issue, he has a 4-to-1 advantage.

The burgeoning concern about crime extends beyond those cities. Gallup reported this month: “Americans’ concern about crime and violence in the U.S. has edged up in the past year, and for the first time since 2016, a majority (53%) say they personally worry a ‘great deal’ about crime. Another 27% report they worry a ‘fair amount,’ which places the issue near the top of the list of 14 national concerns — behind only inflation and the economy, and on par with hunger and homelessness.”

While overall crime has not reached levels seen in the 1980s and ’90s, the homicide rate has been increasing in recent years. Whatever the relative crime rate, voters see the current rate as unacceptable. And it is not only White Republicans who worry about it. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that among Black voters, 17 percent identified crime or violence as their top issue.

So far, national Democrats have essentially responded to anxiety about crime by denying they want to defund the police. (Well, that is a relief!) When they propose something new, it is usually framed in terms of gun restrictions. President Biden recently issued an executive order to stop the proliferation of ghost guns. Those steps may be marginally reassuring to voters, but they are hardly sufficient, especially since the country is incapable of passing national gun-safety laws. So what else is the government doing about crime?

Democrats would be well advised to focus on the substantial increase in spending to fight crime in Biden’s budget request. As the White House explains in a fact sheet: “At DOJ alone, the President’s Budget calls for $20.6 billion in discretionary funding for federal law enforcement and state and local law enforcement and crime prevention programs, an increase of 11% over FY22 enacted ($18.6 billion) and 18% over FY21 enacted ($17.5 billion). This funding will fund the police, including by putting more police officers on the beat, and make essential investments in crime prevention and intervention.”

That will be of little benefit to Democrats politically unless they campaign on the proposal and move it front and center as a separate bill. Biden can use his bully pulpit to advance the issue, either by convening a White House summit on crime or announcing new efforts to focus on violent crime in particular. Democrats should also be more specific. It means little to voters that Democrats want $1.97 billion for more cops on the beat, a 12 percent increase from the last budget. How many more cops does that equate to? How many in voters’ own states or cities?

Unless Biden and other Democrats stop treating crime as only a gun issue, voters will conclude they really don’t care. True, it’s the Democratic administration that is prosecuting more than 750 people who engaged in an armed insurrection at the Capitol. And the administration has also focused on domestic terrorism and allocated $350 billion in state and local funding in the American Rescue Plan to, among other things, keep first responders on the payroll.

But all of that might be news to voters who don’t hear it in Democrats’ messaging and don’t see the same energy from the administration fighting crime as it has put toward battling the pandemic. Democrats would do well to make clear their crime-fighting commitment before this becomes a major liability in the midterms.