Deciding what makes the final cut in a State of the Union speech is an agonizing process. Interest groups lobby the White House for a mere mention of their pet cause, knowing that the speech will almost certainly be the most watched political address of the year.
And so, what makes it into these speeches is rightly understood as major priorities for a president and his administration.
Which brings me to Tuesday night and President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech. And to these lines in particular:
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.”
It was simultaneously one of Biden’s biggest applause lines of the night (lots of Republicans gave him a standing ovation) and a candid recognition from the President of how much political damage calls from within his party to defund the police have actually caused.
It all began in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, when footage of George Floyd dying at the hands of police officers became public, leading to protests around the country. (Derek Chauvin, one of the officers, was convicted on all three charges against him in April 2021.)
Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council appeared at an event in June 2020 in which they pledged that they would work to dismantle the police force in the city. They did so on a stage that featured large cutout letters spelling out “Defund Police.”
“We committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe,” Lisa Bender, the city council president at the time, told CNN then.
Liberals in Congress picked up that call, led by the members of the “Squad:” Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
“It is not crazy for Black and brown communities to want what White people have already given themselves and that is funding your schools more than you fund criminalizing your own kids,” said Ocasio-Cortez of the “defund” movement in June 2020.
Tweeted Omar around the same time: “The ‘defund the police’ movement, is one of reimagining the current police system to build an entity that does not violate us, while relocating funds to invest in community services. Let’s be clear, the people who now oppose this, have always opposed calls for systematic change.”
The problem? The notion of defunding the police simply was not popular among much of the public. A ballot measure that would have fundamentally restructured the police department in Minneapolis was easily defeated last November. And Republicans running for office began to seize on Democratic calls for defunding the police as evidence that the other party was deeply out of step most Americans.
Calls for defunding the police also dovetailed with rising crime rates around the country, which only made the attack by Republicans more potent.
Biden’s decision to directly address the issue – and to urge funding for police departments – speaks to how politically damaging he believes the issue is for his side. In urging funding for police departments in such a public forum, Biden is clearly hoping that rank-and-file Democrats follow his lead in advance of the 2022 elections.
The early returns on that hope were not promising, however.
“With all due respect, Mr. President. You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech,” tweeted Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush following Biden’s address. “All our country has done is given more funding to police. The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings. Defund the police. Invest in our communities.”