WASHINGTON – The day after President Donald Trump declared himself “your president of law and order,” Democratic rival Joe Biden began a speech by reciting the final words of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police has sparked nationwide protests.
“I can’t breathe,” Biden said this week in Philadelphia as he quoted Floyd, an African American man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. “I can’t breathe.”
As the White House race was again upended – first by a pandemic and now by the largest display of public demonstrations in a half-century – Trump’s get-tough response opened the door for the former vice president to present a contrast. It’s one the Biden campaign embraced.
The president has said authorities need to “dominate” the streets to restore order. But the Biden campaign is betting on changing attitudes nationally about racism and policing, reflected by polls showing many Americans are sympathetic to the protests.
And yet it’s a tightrope for Biden politically. Not only has he exposed himself to attacks from Trump as soft amid civil unrest and violence, but many young African-American activists at the center of the Floyd protests still haven’t warmed up to his candidacy.
On Friday, Biden officially clinched the Democratic presidential nomination by passing the 1,991-delegate threshold need to be the party’s nominee.
‘Two very different conversations with voters’
As he did four years ago, Trump invoked “law and order” language from Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential run, which came during similar national turbulence.
The Biden campaign said the president’s decision to forego a national address calling for healing highlighted a lack of leadership. The campaign has also accused Trump of botching the response to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 110,000 – a characterization the president rejects. On Friday, Biden blasted Trump for ‘spiking the ball’ on the economy after a Rose Garden event in which the president and his aides extolled an unexpectedly strong May employment report.
“It’s obvious that these two individuals are trying to have very different conversations with voters,” said Amy Dacey, former CEO of the Democratic National Committee, who is now executive director at American University’s Sine Institute of Policy and Politics. She said the protests have further turned the race into a “question of which leadership style people want moving forward.”
After Trump threatened to quell the riots with U.S. military force, Biden leaned into what his campaign perceives as one of the former vice president’s best qualities – empathy – and pushed for police reforms that Trump has stayed away from following the death of Floyd.
In addition to the Philadelphia speech, Biden held a Zoom call with Democratic mayors and visited a gathering at a predominantly black church in Wilmington, Delaware. The campaign planned events where Biden was listening, not just talking.
“Like many of you, I know what it’s like to grieve. I know what it feels like to feel like you can’t go on,” Biden said, decrying widespread “suffering” in the U.S. right now and bringing up the five-year anniversary of the death of his son, Beau, who had battled brain cancer.
“The pain is raw. The pain is real. A president of the United States must be part of the solution, not the problem. But our president today is part of the problem.”
But there are risks with Biden embracing the sentiment of protesters. Trump on Thursday tried to tie Democrats and Biden to activists’ calls to “defund police.” He tweeted, “Remember that when you don’t want crime.”
Although Biden has condemned the violence and looting, senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson suggested the Democratic candidate had made a “crass political calculation” that the unrest would help his campaign.
“Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that they stand with the rioters, the people burning businesses in minority communities and causing mayhem, by donating to post bail for those arrested,” she said.
For the Biden campaign, the goal is to connect the president’s response to racism and inequality to the pandemic and economic suffering, arguing it’s another crisis that Trump can’t handle.
“He is incapable of confronting the systemic racism and injustice that has plagued our country for generations, so he changes the subject with a new catch phrase,” said Biden campaign national press secretary T.J. Ducklo.
Ducklo accused Trump of trying to distract voters from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “It won’t work,” he said.
Polls show changing attitudes toward racism
Executing a law-and-order strategy that plays off national chaos is more complicated for Trump today than in 2016. As the incumbent, he can no longer cast himself as the businessman outsider fighting the status quo.
The president’s tough tone is perhaps targeted at suburban swing districts, traditionally Republican, that flipped to Democrats in the 2018 midterms. These voters are crucial for Biden’s pathway to victory. The play appears also aimed at seniors, whose support of Trump has slid during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dacey, former executive director of EMILY’s List, called Trump’s law-and-order pitch “reactionary” to sliding poll numbers and a base that looked to the president to present strength to counter protests that turned violent. She speculated Trump is eyeing the voting blocs that won him the White House in 2016, but she believes this year is different because of the pandemic and soaring unemployment rate.
“This is all happening at once, and that is unique.”
She said Trump’s calculation could “backfire” by giving Biden an opportunity to reach out to communities of color hurt the most economically from the pandemic. “The Biden campaign is trying to say that as a leader, you have to represent everybody and every community.”
Brad Todd, Republican strategist and founding partner of the media consultant firm OnMessage Inc., said Biden is “trying to walk a line” of supporting the protests but not supporting the riots. “The voice he will probably need to channel on that is George Floyd’s brother or the mayor of Atlanta,” he said, referring to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who spoke strongly against vandalism that spilled from protests in her city.
“That’s the challenge for him,” said Todd, who is working for the campaigns of two Republican senators in battleground races, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He said the Biden campaign was disciplined by keeping Biden off the campaign trail amid the coronavirus because there was no benefit to him. “Now he’s trying to get back on the campaign trail because this is a subject he’s comfortable with.”
Todd said “the sweet spot” for most Americans, especially people in the suburbs, is protecting the right to protest should while also preserving order. “I think that’s probably the sweet spot that anybody running for president should aim for.”
Perhaps helping Biden’s case in suburbs, new polling suggests the sentiment nationally has changed around perceptions of racism in just the last year.
A poll this week from Monmouth University found a solid majority, 57% of Americans, believe the anger that led to the protests is justified. Fifty-seven percent also said police officers “are more likely to use excessive force” if a suspect is black, compared to one-third who said black and white suspects would be treated the same.
Fifty-four percent of U.S. adults said they support the Floyd protests – including a small plurality of Republicans – in a poll from Morning Consult. The survey also found 51% of Americans believe many people do not take racism seriously enough – an increase of 10 percentage points to the same poll question a year ago.
Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University, said Biden “has the momentum” with issues tied to the protests and that Trump is in a “real difficult position.” He said Trump’s law and order push solidifies his base, around 40% of the electorate, but leaves little room to grow.
“There are some people in the middle who see some of that looting going on, but there’s not a whole lot. He’s got those people,” Belt said. “If he wants to win reelection, he needs to expand beyond his base. This particular issue is not helping him to do that.”
In contrast, Belt said, Biden “can work both sides and say, ‘Of course, people should not be looting but we also have to listen.’ He’s going to try to have it both ways. And of course Trump is going to try to paint him as being weak.”
But with the election still 150 days away, Belt predicted that the economy would return as the the dominant issue. Both Trump and Biden pivoted that direction Friday, with the president celebrating 2.5 million jobs added over the last month. Trump said his plan to address racism is a strong economy and he invoked Floyd’s name.
“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this a great thing that’s happening in this country,” Trump said. “It’s a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”
Some Floyd protesters still not sold on Biden
Protests seeking justice for Floyd broke out just days after Biden made a widely criticized gaffe speaking to African American voters.
In an interview with black radio host Charlamagne tha God, Biden said “you ain’t black” if you’re struggling to decide whether to back him or Trump. The comment prompted a backlash among many black voters, whose overwhelming support was the biggest factor in turning around Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primary. He’s now relying on them to turn out in higher numbers than 2016 to beat Trump
The Trump campaign seized on the remarks. Biden, who already faced scrutiny from progressive black voters for helping pass the 1994 crime bill, quickly apologized.
Floyd’s death allowed Biden to reintroduce his criminal justice platform. Biden, who will attend Floyd’s funeral Tuesday, said Congress should adopt a ban on police choke holds. He also pledged support to end military weapons going to police departments, improve police oversight and create a new standard for use of force.
“(The Biden campaign) is trying to create a split frame,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University and director of the school’s James Weldon Johnson Institute, which focuses on movements for civil and human rights. “They’re trying to draw a sharp contrast and show what their vision of leadership looks like. What I think they’re trying to tap into is Trump fatigue.”
As for energizing black voters to turn out for Biden in high numbers, Gillespie said “speaking at a church and having a photo op with some protesters is not enough.” She added: “This has to be the start of a conversation and it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation.”
Some African American protesters gathered at Lafayette Park near the White House this week said they want to see more from Biden, although they made clear they don’t support Trump. The protesters are overwhelmingly young and liberal – demographics Biden struggled with in the Democratic primary.
Nicola Morgan, 41, of Columbia, Maryland, said she wants to “see more passion” and even “more empathy” from Biden on the issues of systemic racism.
“I get it, this is a uncomfortable thing that you have to deal with,” said Morgan, who plans to vote for Biden anyway. “You have to deal with 400 years of stuff that has been going on. I want to see him deal with that. I want to see change.”
Cassandra Dalmida, 19, of Washington, D.C,. and originally from Orlando, Florida, said she’s disappointed in Trump’s response to the protests, calling it a “slap my face” and “disrespectful. Dalmida, a first-time voter, said she appreciated Biden’s response to Trump’s position on the protests.
“When Biden let us know that he didn’t agree with that, I was like thank you,” she said.
Still, she said she’s unsure if she will vote for Biden.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.