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President Biden, Mayor Eric Adams and the volatile politics of policing

New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) addresses mourners Jan. 28 during a funeral for police officer Jason Rivera. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

At the end of a White House meeting on gun crime in July, President Biden’s aides motioned one participant, Eric Adams, to join Biden in the Oval Office for some rare one-on-one time — just days after Adams won a bruising New York Democratic mayoral primary with a tough public safety message that appealed to Biden’s sensibilities.

Biden turned on the charm. He showed Adams family photos. He pledged to visit New York. He grabbed Adams’s arm, looked him in the eye and offered any help he could give. Adams, in a recent interview, said he believed Biden was “stepping out of the political realm” and talking to him “man to man.”

It was a rare look into how Biden at times uses his presidential tool kit — the grandeur of the White House, the intimacy of the Oval Office — to forge a new relationship with a potential ally. The result will be vividly on display Thursday when Biden visits New York for a series of anti-gun crime events with Adams, including a stop at 1 Police Plaza, headquarters of the New York City Police Department. They’ll also visit a violence intervention center in Queens.

But the Biden-Adams relationship goes far beyond personal chemistry. As a candidate, Biden strongly supported changes to policing, forging links with the Black Lives Matter movement and denouncing the misdeeds of law enforcement. Polls now show voters deeply concerned about rising crime, and embracing Adams gives Biden a way to recalibrate his message, balancing his calls for change with a sharper tough-on-crime stance.

“Biden needs Eric Adams badly, because there is a sense that things are out of control,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who was a police officer before becoming a political strategist. “Adams, as a Black man who was a cop, makes it easier for Biden to frankly deal with a significant truth, which is, Black people and White people don’t like to be shot.”

Beyond that, Sheinkopf said, it gives Biden a way to signal he is not beholden to his party’s liberals in advance of the November midterms. “This is an antidote for the left controlling the party,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s an attempt to create a coalition again, in a very fractious group of people.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) is known of his big personality. But what policies does he support and what does his rise mean for the Democratic party? (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Homicide rates have soared over the past two years, and Republicans are seizing on that in hopes of painting a picture of the country descending into chaos under a weak president. For Biden, projecting the image of a tough centrist Democrat is in a sense a return to his longtime political identity.

Biden, 79, and Adams, 61, have dramatically different backgrounds. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate, while Adams was a police officer for 22 years before entering politics. Adams became an officer after being arrested and beaten by police, which drove him to push for changes in policing and afforded him some credibility among civil rights activists even as he campaigned as a pro-police leader.

Aides to both men say they see themselves in each other, with similar macho, plain-spoken styles of politics that helped them build multiethnic coalitions including working-class voters.

Biden aides closely followed Adams’s mayoral campaign as the candidate carefully distanced himself from the party’s restive liberal wing. A leaked video showed Adams, at a fundraiser, arguing that his victory would start the process of “regaining” control of the city. “This is not a socialist country — let’s be clear on that,” he told television host Bill Maher in July.

Yet Adams’s record of agitating against “stop and frisk” policies and backing Black officers helped insulate him from liberal criticism. He even won the endorsement of William Bell, whose son Sean Bell was shot to death by New York police the morning before he was to wed.

Now Biden appears eager to embrace Adams’s approach in navigating the volatile politics of crime and policing. The bromance comes as many Democrats are trying to pivot away from the “defund the police” message that became a battle cry for some on the left after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer. The slogan excited activists, but contributed to the unexpected congressional losses in 2020.

Biden himself befriended the Floyd family, promising to push for changes to policing, such as banning chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants, that have since run aground in Congress.

But the political ground has shifted since the summer of 2020. Many Democrats are now trying to increase funds for police, while still pushing for controls against excesses. In Minnesota — a birthplace of the “defund” movement — Democratic and Republican state lawmakers offered dueling plans for more police funding. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) pushed for a pay increase for police last year. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said last year that Chicago is “nearly at a state of emergency” due to crime, and proposed higher public safety budgets.

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Some of these funds flow directly from Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package that passed last year and provided billions in state and local funding that can be used to hire police and pay officers’ overtime.

Yet polls show crime is a growing political problem for Democrats, who were already facing a tough political landscape heading into the November elections.

A Fox Business survey from December found that 57 percent of registered voters disapproved of how Biden was handling crime, while 36 percent approved. The same poll found 77 percent of registered voters are either “extremely” or “very” concerned about higher crime rates across the country. Only inflation concerned more people, the poll found.

Republicans dismiss Biden’s upcoming events with Adams as all for show. “A photo op in New York City won’t convince voters that Joe Biden and Democrats have abandoned their pro-crime agenda,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Adams, too, said his party needs to take a broadly different approach to crime. While Democrats focus on long-term ideas like education and jobs, he said, they have a harder time addressing immediate needs like beefed-up policing. When those issues arise, “all of a sudden Democrats cringe, because you have to start now talking about how do you use police properly to get the justice we deserve and the safety we need,” Adams said.

It’s part of a wider debate that is engulfing Democrats across the country. In Philadelphia, for example, former mayor Michael A. Nutter, who is Black, has criticized liberal District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is White, for adopting a “woke” message that downplays violence against Black people. Yet other African American leaders support Krasner.

And Adams’s approach can ruffle feathers, as evidenced by his release last week of a 15-page “Blueprint to End Gun Violence in New York.” The plan included elements that tend to win broad support among Democrats, such as bolstering a summer youth jobs program, requiring city contractors to hire from targeted neighborhoods and bulking up mental health programs.

But other parts of the plan have caused some angst, including Adams’s proposal to reestablish specialized units that would focus on the most violent offenders, which Adams is calling “Neighborhood Safety Teams.” The concept is similar to police teams that New York dismantled in the wake of the Floyd murder.

Some Black leaders are wary of Adams’s message, given New York’s history of police brutality and policies like stop and frisk, which allowed officers to detain and search people on often vague pretexts.

“We want to see the guns off the street, but we do not want to see a return to stop and frisk,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has known Adams for decades. “I’m not thinking that is the intent, but I’m concerned that we make sure that is not the intent.”

He added, “We are now at a stage of saying we want to analyze and raise questions about where will the guardrails be here? Where will the limits be?”

Adams had some gentle advice for Biden, saying the president could follow his lead and meet with liberal prosecutors who took office promising to be more selective about pursuing minor crimes. “He may want to pull together prosecutors across the country and sit down and say, ‘Let’s look at this,’ ” Adams suggested, adding that in New York there have been “unintended outcomes” to the lighter approach.

Since their Oval Office meeting, Biden has called Adams several times — to congratulate him when he won November’s election, to commiserate after a deadly fire ripped through a Bronx apartment complex, and after two police officers were shot and killed in Harlem. Adams came to the White House again in December for a meeting of newly elected mayors.

Adams has offered help in areas beyond crime, making calls to key House members in the New York congressional delegation who wavered on supporting a bipartisan infrastructure plan, according to a person familiar with the calls.

Adams had never met a president, been in the Oval Office — or even the White House — when he met Biden in July. “When I walked inside there, I felt chills,” he said in the interview. Shortly after his private huddle with the president, Adams emerged from the West Wing and declared, “I feel like I’m the Biden of Brooklyn.”

The president was pleased when he heard about Adams’s comment, according to a senior Biden aide, who said that it made him smile.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.