For nearly two years, President-elect Joe Biden has sold himself to American voters as the man best able to heal a nation sundered by racism and partisan distrust. He has vowed to rein in police abuse, reform criminal sentencing and inject fresh resources into low-income communities battered by inequality.
But accomplishing these goals, never easy, has been made immeasurably more difficult by last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, a stark display of White anger and violence. With liberals demanding bold action on issues of race and inequality and moderates urging caution, Biden will have to navigate sharp divisions in his own party, as well as the gulf between Democrats and the Republicans who retain control of half the seats in the Senate.
Beyond politics, the cultural challenges facing Biden are unprecedented in modern times, scholars and political analysts say. In addition to intense debates about policing, his administration will confront the growing threat of armed, far-right extremist groups and a national discourse increasingly marked by racial rancor. To be successful, they say, Biden must find words and policies that can address decades of unequal treatment without provoking a backlash in the large swaths of the nation that did not vote for him.
“What Joe Biden is inheriting is the legacy of the cultural wars that began in the 1960s but still beset the country today,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication and an affiliate professor of history at American University. “And Joe Biden didn’t run as a policy candidate, he ran as cultural candidate — as someone who could restore the soul of the country. … The question is: How does he do that?”
The nation’s divisions over racial equity, criminal justice and policing are likely to be among the most fraught domestic issues facing Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, the first woman and first person of color to hold the job.
Over the past year, after the killing of George Floyd, Americans watched as Black Lives Matter turned into one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history. The country’s reckoning on racism and police violence rippled through corporate boardrooms, school curriculums, sports and seemingly every facet of American life.
Although Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May appeared to many to be a watershed moment that might lead to lasting change in policing, it was followed by several other high-profile incidents of Black Americans being killed or seriously wounded by police, including Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia. The crowds that flooded the nation’s streets in protest were often belittled by President Trump — who called them “thugs” — and many of his supporters.
The past four years also saw a surge in activity by white supremacists, which Biden repeatedly stated was one of the reasons he decided to enter the presidential contest. Groups on opposite sides of the political and cultural spectra continue to clash — sometimes violently — at rallies and protests.
Last week, in a stunning assault on democracy, a group of Trump’s most fervent supporters stormed Congress as lawmakers were certifying Biden’s victory. Biden immediately condemned the rioters who forced their way inside the Capitol as “insurrectionists, domestic terrorists,” a sign that his administration will take seriously the threat posed by homegrown extremists.
The next day, Biden introduced U.S. appellate judge Merrick B. Garland as his nominee for attorney general. Garland said the chaos at the Capitol made clear that “the rule of law is … the very foundation of our democracy.” And he pledged that, if confirmed, his priorities will range from "ensuring racial equity in our justice system to meeting the evolving threat of violent extremism.”
Still, the sight of White rioters breaching the Capitol and freely roaming its marble halls raised fresh questions about unequal treatment by law enforcement officials. When the Floyd protests reached their peak in early June, the airwaves filled with scenes of police using significantly more force against diverse crowds of demonstrators lawfully gathered in public streets.
At the time, scattered incidents of violence and looting infuriated conservatives and led to a resurgence of the “Back the Blue” movement. Hobbled by Trump’s sloppy handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the president’s campaign seized on the opportunity to shift the message to law and order, warning suburban voters that the protesters — and their Democratic supporters — threatened their “American Dream.”
Initially, Biden struggled to respond. When protesters started demanding that cities “defund the police” and shift government resources to social programs, Biden’s message was at times unclear — although he unequivocally condemned the violence.
“No, I don’t support defunding the police,” he told CBS News in June. “I support conditioning federal aid to police, based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
Biden also was firmly in the moderate lane on several policy fronts. Although he supported ending capital punishment and mandatory minimums in federal sentencing, privately-run prison contracts and cash bail, he opposed other policies supported by some of his Democratic rivals, including allowing people to vote while incarcerated. And Biden said he favored letting states decide whether to adopt “red-flag” laws, which create a process for police or family members to obtain court orders temporarily restricting access to guns by people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
Biden has proposed ramping up Justice Department investigations of police departments accused of a “pattern or practice” of abuse, which can lead to court-ordered reform agreements called consent decrees. The Justice Department opened more than two dozen such investigations under the Obama administration, but quickly abandoned them under Trump.
A comprehensive criminal justice plan Biden released in July also called for ending the disparity in federal sentencing for crimes involving powder and crack cocaine, decriminalizing marijuana and shifting government resources from incarceration to crime prevention.
Since winning the election, Biden has avoided speaking in detail about criminal justice reform. In a Dec. 8 call with leaders from seven civil rights groups, he questioned whether an immediate “push” on police reform would disadvantage Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two Democrats then seeking to oust Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in a special runoff election in Georgia.
“I also don’t think we should get too far ahead of ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police,’ ” Biden told the civil rights leaders, according to video of a Zoom meeting obtained by the Intercept. “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police.”
Last week, Warnock and Ossoff prevailed, handing Democrats control of the Senate and vastly expanding Biden’s options on a range of legislative fronts. Unlike his plans to contain the coronavirus pandemic, however, Biden has not specifically outlined his priorities on criminal justice reform, beyond creating a national police oversight commission within his first 100 days. The Biden transition team declined to comment, pointing to his past speeches and statements.
Although the Fraternal Order of Police and some other law enforcement groups strongly backed Trump during the campaign, police officials now say Biden is particularly well-positioned to help bridge the divide between law enforcement and civilians pushing for change. Biden’s long-standing ties with law enforcement — including his work on get-tough provisions of the 1994 crime bill, which made Biden suspect in some corners of his party — could help him advance the cause of police reform, they said.
“President Obama had the respect and support of the civil rights and justice groups, but he didn’t have a lot of support from the policing profession,” said Terry Cunningham, deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who has met with Biden transition officials. “For Trump, it was the reverse. … We think [Biden is] uniquely positioned.”
Among the areas ripe for compromise, according to law enforcement officials, are improved police hiring practices, greater participation by local departments in the FBI’s new database of fatal police shootings and police use of force, and nationwide certification for police officers.
“The U.S. has the most decentralized policing of any country in the world,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “There are 18,000 police departments, roughly, and nobody knows exactly how many police officers there are."
Improving interactions between police and the communities they serve would go a long way toward easing racial tension, political observers say. However, doing so would require Biden to clear some significant hurdles in a country increasingly splintered along lines of education, religion and class.
Steinhorn, who has studied the 1960s extensively, said the job that awaits Biden exceeds even the challenges that faced presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who were tasked with “changing discriminatory laws” to comply with federal court decisions to give African Americans equal rights. Black Americans today, he said, are looking to Biden “to root out systemic racism” from government agencies, private enterprise and other institutions — a much more difficult job.
“What we are facing now is institutional and systematic racial bigotry that is sort of woven into the very cloth of so many institutions, whether it’s the financial industry, whether it’s the housing industry, whether it’s educational systems, and certainly in policing,” Steinhorn said.
“And those are much harder to articulate than when you see Bull Connor there with his German shepherds and fire hoses or when you see people being completely denied the right to vote because they can’t guess the exact number of jelly beans in a jar,” Steinhorn said, referring to the infamous public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., who opposed civil rights for Black citizens, and one of the many Jim Crow-era schemes used to keep them from voting.
The rise of far-right extremist groups, some of which are openly threatening to take up arms against the government, including on Inauguration Day, further complicates the challenge. Some progressive activists are urging Biden to designate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys as terrorists, although that would require a change in federal law.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, cautioned that a legislative debate about the definition of domestic terrorism could prompt resistance from free-speech advocates and others concerned about broad new federal powers. Instead of getting bogged down in that debate, Levin said Biden should consider empowering the Justice Department to investigate far-right threats while investing in prevention strategies.
Even that approach could be hampered, Levin said, by the close relationship between the Republican Party and some extremist groups. Many members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol bore insignia tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has been embraced by at least two incoming Republican lawmakers.
Such an approach also risks stirring a dangerous pot: Before he was executed for killing 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, Timothy McVeigh, a member of the far-right militia movement, said he was motivated by anger about the Justice Department’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., two years earlier.
Biden “has to thread the needle,” Levin said, and make sure that “conservative people of goodwill and career public servants” are in prominent positions in the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies. In the Biden administration, he said, “the intelligence community has to be viewed as nonpartisan."
Bob Dohnal, publisher of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest and a longtime GOP activist in the state, said he doubts that many Trump supporters will give Biden space to attempt to unify the nation. He compared today’s divisions to what the country’s earliest leaders faced when trying to chart a path after British colonialism.
“Does a country ever really heal?” Dohnal asked. “It’s got various factions, and they are going to fight for what they want.”
Many liberal activists are also skeptical.
Kwame Osei Jr. is a founder of Enough is Enough Fort Worth, a group dedicated to fighting the far-right extremists and promoting racial justice. This summer, he and other members of the group began carrying semiautomatic rifles to Black Lives Matter and anti-Confederate demonstrations to defend protesters from attack.
Osei said he and other activists will judge Biden on his response to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys, as well as his ability to quickly boost funding for social programs in low-income urban communities.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas and remain active … to keep bringing our demands and expectations to the forefront, and let the Democratic Party know what is at stake if they don’t fulfill for the people who supported them,” Osei said, adding that he doubts that Black Americans will continue to support Democratic candidates if Biden governs as a moderate.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson urged Biden to appoint a senior adviser focused exclusively on racial justice and police reform. The adviser should report directly to Biden and have the power to communicate on his behalf across all agencies of the government, he said.
Johnson, who was on Biden’s Dec. 8 call with civil rights leaders, said the president-elect needs to figure out how to set a new “tone of inclusion” while also being willing to push back against conservatives should they question his policies.
“He’s got to be able to address people’s fears, but not allow fearmongers to exploit those fears,” Johnson said.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), who represents Baltimore and has known Biden since the 1980s, said the president-elect understands that tone and communication skills alone will not be enough to move the country beyond the racial animosity of the Trump era.
Mfume, a former head of the NAACP, said Biden has always believed that policy and legislative changes — even if they come through compromise — are the things that will define whether he has been successful.
“This is not going to be a president who says, ‘Okay, I am going into office and I will do four years and let history judge me afterward,' ” Mfume said. “This is going to be a president who goes into office and then every six months is going to look back and say, ‘What did I do?’ and ‘Did I make a difference?’
“And he may not be the panacea for all the ills that trouble us,” Mfume continued. “But at least with Joe Biden, you feel like you have a fighting chance.”
Tom Jackman contributed to this report.