Biden’s State of the Union speech missed the mark on crime  

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Crime is a problem in this country, but the fear of crime is a much worse and more pressing problem. In fact, today the fear of crime far outstrips the fact of crime as a factor in people’s lives. 

Crime and the fear of crime will play a prominent role in the 2024 presidential campaign; it looks like President Biden and former President Trump will offer very different approaches to those problems. 

Trump is giving crime and the fear of crime pride of place in his campaign, even if that means distorting the facts. He is linking it to illegal immigration, which polls show is at the top of the issues about which Americans are most concerned.  

As he did in his previous campaigns, Trump is fanning the fear of crime to persuade voters that they cannot afford four more years of the Biden administration. 

Biden, in contrast, will try to convince voters that the crime problem is not as bad as they think it is and that they have less to fear than they think. He wants them to credit him for making America safer during his first term as president and show he is not asleep at the switch in addressing the crime problem.  

That is as hard needle to thread — and if the president’s State of the Union Address is any indication, Biden has not yet figured out how to thread it. If he is to succeed in his re-election campaign, the president will have to up his game and show voters that he gets their fear and has a plan to address it. 

Let’s first look at the fear of crime problem in this country and then at the different approaches to it taken so far by Biden and Trump. 

A NewsNation report captures the nature of the problem when it says “New data shows crime is down in the U.S. but recent polling shows Americans’ fear of crime is at a 30-year high.” Among major crime categories, murder, other violent crimes, and property crimes have all registered significant recent declines. The exception is auto theft, which is up by more than 33 percent. 

But a November 2023 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of its respondents continue to think that the U.S. crime problem is extremely serious. They also think that the problem has gotten worse over the past year. 

Ninety-two percent of Republicans hold that view, as do 78 percent of independents and even 58 percent of Democrats. Moreover, 40 percent of the people with whom Gallup spoke said they are afraid to walk alone at night within a mile of their home.  

Fear of crime is correlated with income and place of residence. Lower-income people living in cities register the most pronounced fear of crime. 

Gallup found it’s been 30 years since fear of crime was as high as it is today. But, unlike the situation today, back then, as Gallup points out, America was experiencing “one of the worst crime waves” in history. 

Commentators blame the media for fanning the fear of crime and point out that crime stories get wide circulation through social media. But, as economist John Roman observes, something else is driving the disjunction: Americans, he says, are becoming more and more sensitive to, and troubled by, any sign of “disorder” in their environment. They translate this generalized concern about disorder into a heightened fear of crime. 

Sensitivity to disorder, Roman reports, is especially acute among older people. As the average age of the population in the United States increases, it is predictable that that sensitivity, and with it fear of crime, would increase.   

But listening to Biden’s State of the Union address I was not sure that he and his advisers understand they are facing a real fear of crime epidemic. And scenes of National Guard patrolling New York City subways are likely to make it worse. 

In fact, Biden said nothing about crime until the 50-minute mark of his one hour and 20- minute speech. At that point, he acknowledged that “all Americans deserve the freedom to be safe,” but he insisted that “America is safer today than when I took office.” 

From there, he went on to tout his crime fighting record, saying that “through my American Rescue Plan … we made the largest investment in public safety ever.” The result, the president said, was that “last year, the murder rate saw the sharpest decrease in history. Violent crime fell to one of its lowest levels in more than 50 years.” 

That’s all true, but simply telling people what the facts are is unlikely to speak to their anxieties.  

Talking specifically about gun violence, he again focused on his administration’s policies, not the fear of crime and disorder that are running rampant. Biden said that he “did… something by establishing the first-ever Office of Gun Violence Prevention in the White House.” He promised that, if re-elected, he would “help cities invest in more community police officers, more mental health workers, more community violence intervention.” 

All makes sense as a response to the crime problem, but it seemed a bit tone deaf as a response to fear of crime problem. Contrast Biden’s approach with Trump, who clearly gets the fear of crime problem. 

On Saturday during a campaign rally in Rome, Ga., the former president made that problem a centerpiece of his speech. Ten minutes into his almost two-hour address, Trump turned his attention to the story of “one of the lives who has been taken from us,” highlighting the case of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student who was killed while jogging late last month.  

He used Riley’s tragic death to paint the crime problem and the fear it creates in vivid terms, and, as he often does, he linked both to the border crisis. Trump didn’t mince words, blaming Biden for “intentionally” releasing Riley’s killer into our country and highlighting what he called Biden’s “free to kill” border policy.  

“Joe Biden,” Trump claimed, “has no remorse, he’s got no regret, he’s got no empathy, no compassion and worst of all he has no intention of stopping the deadly invasion that stoleprecious Laken’s beautiful American life.” And, in a key passage, he talked about fear of crime as a fact of American life.  

Americans, and especially “suburban women” — whose votes he needs — long for “security,” as he put it. “They don’t want illegal immigrants knocking on their front door.”  

Responding to that fear, Trump delivered a simple, easy-to-understand promise: “I will stop the killing. I will stop the bloodshed. I will end the agony of our people, the plunder of our cities, the sacking of our towns, the violation of our citizens and the conquest of our country.” 

Imagine the fearful American, offered the choice between a candidate who touts “establishing the first-ever Office of Gun Violence Prevention in the White House” and another who says “I will stop the killing.”  

If Biden is going to win their votes, he will have to move the fear of crime to the top of his agenda. He must do what he did not do in the State of the Union and communicate that he truly understands the fear epidemic, and make clear that bringing order back into the lives of ordinary Americans will be a high priority for his second term. 

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College.   

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