WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden is ready to talk up his crime prevention plans during a visit to Pennsylvania, where Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to gain leverage on the issue ahead of November’s midterm elections.
It’s Biden’s first of three trips in the coming week, underscoring the state’s role as a key political battleground, and it comes days before former President Donald Trump hosts his own rally there on Saturday.
The White House said Biden will use his Tuesday visit to call out Republicans for opposing his proposal to restore a ban on assault-style weapons.
Both parties worked together in a rare effort to pass bipartisan gun safety legislation earlier this year after massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, but Biden has repeatedly said more needs to be done.
As a U.S. senator, Biden played a leading role in temporarily banning assault-style weapons, including firearms similar to the AR-15 that have exploded in popularity in recent years, and he wants to put the law back into place.
“A majority of Americans support this ... the NRA opposes it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. “So we’re going to hear from the president about the importance of making sure we protect our communities.”
Biden’s speech at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre comes as Democrats try to blunt Republican efforts to use concern about crime to their advantage in the midterms.
It’s a particularly fraught issue in Pennsylvania, a key swing state where a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office are up for grabs.
The Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, accuses Democrat Josh Shapiro of being soft on crime as the state’s twice-elected attorney general, saying at one recent event that crime has gone up on his opponent’s watch and that Shapiro “stands aside” as homicides rise across Pennsylvania.
Homicides have been increasing in Pennsylvania, but overall crime seems to have fallen over the last year, according to state statistics.
As attorney general since 2017, Shapiro has toured the state discussing the need to crack down on gun trafficking and ghost guns, and to recruit more police officers. Last December, he said that state agents and Philadelphia police officers working together had reduced the number of shootings in areas that were confronting gun violence related to drug trafficking.
Shapiro plans to attend Tuesday’s event with Biden.
The Republican U.S. Senate nominee, heart surgeon turned television celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, has tried to portray the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, as extreme and reckless on crime policy.
Fetterman has endorsed recommendations that more geriatric and rehabilitated prisoners can be released from state prisons without harming public safety. Oz and Republicans have distorted that into the claim that Fetterman wants to release “dangerous criminals” from prisons or that he’s in favor of “emptying prisons.”
Fetterman does not plan to be in Wilkes-Barre with Biden, but he’s expected to march in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade when the president visits Sept. 5. Biden also will be in Pennsylvania on Thursday for a prime-time speech that the White House said will address “the continued battle for the soul of the nation” and defending democracy.
It’s unclear whether crime will end up as a pivotal issue in November.
Only 11% of U.S. adults named crime or violence as one of the top five issues they consider most important for the government to work on in the next year, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in June. That’s unchanged since December, and it’s well below the percentage naming many of the other top issues for Americans.
Biden has tried to balance his approach to crime by acknowledging voters’ fears and praising law enforcement, but also urging more accountability for officers.
He’s rejected the activist slogan “defund the police,” which Republicans have used as a cudgel against Democrats in general, by calling for more money for cops.
Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden will speak in Wilkes-Barre about the “simple basic notion that when it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer isn’t to defund the police, but to fund the police.”
Biden also plans to talk about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the role that law enforcement played in defending Congress. He previously focused on that issue in a virtual address to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives on July 25.
“The police were heroes that day,” he said. “Donald Trump lacked the courage to act. The brave women and men in blue all across this nation should never forget that. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop.”
Biden’s trip to Wilkes-Barre was originally scheduled for July 21 but was cancelled when the president contracted COVID-19 and went into isolation while he was contagious.
Biden has laid out a $37 billion plan for addressing crime and boosting law enforcement resources. He wants Congress to spend $13 billion to help communities hire and train 100,000 police officers over five years. Another $3 billion would go to clearing court backlogs and resolving cases involving murders and guns, and $5 billion more would go to support programs that could help stop violence before it occurs.
In addition, Biden is looking for $15 billion to provide grants to initiatives for preventing violent crime or creating public health responses to nonviolent incidents.