Joe Biden prayed for the “right verdict” in the George Floyd murder trial before it was announced, then celebrated the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin as a “giant step forward in the march toward justice in America”.
But having secured the outcome he was hoping for in the criminal case that captured America and the world, the 78-year-old US president now faces the daunting political challenge of delivering on his pledge for greater racial equality in the country, beginning with policing.
On Tuesday night, as he spoke to the nation, Biden made clear that the first order of business after Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd under his knee last year would be for Congress to pass police reform legislation named after Floyd that would crack down on practices such as no-knock warrants and chokeholds and limit individual officers’ immunity from legal liability.
“We can’t stop here,” he said. “In order to deliver real change and reform, we can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this will ever happen and occur again”.
Whether Biden can corral lawmakers in a deeply divided Congress to advance the bill at a time when his top legislative priority is passing his multitrillion-dollar economic recovery plans is highly uncertain. While Democrats are broadly united in support of the proposal, the president and his allies are counting on some Republican support that remains very much in doubt.
Democratic lawmakers Cory Booker of New Jersey and Karen Bass of California have been negotiating a compromise with Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, with the hope of delivering a bipartisan package in the coming months.
Scott said they were on the “verge” of an agreement, while Bass has said she wants a deal struck by the first anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25.
“I have been talking to the White House about policing reform [since] before they became the Biden administration. This is a big issue and critically important to our country,” Booker added on Wednesday.
Yet the encouraging tone from the top negotiators on Capitol Hill — all three of whom are African-American — mask the reality that there are still considerable sticking points in the legislation.
Chief among them is the matter of qualified immunity, a legal principle that protects certain government officials, including police officers, from being sued for actions taken on the job. Scott has pushed for police departments, rather than individual officers, to be liable in civil suits.
“You don’t want to undermine good cops,” Steve Scalise, a senior Republican lawmaker from Louisiana, told Fox News. “I hope they don’t go down that road; work with Republicans who know something about this too, and we could come together,” he said.
Politically, signing police reform legislation could be crucial for Biden to prove that he can bring a change in substance as well as tone on racial matters as Democrats head into the midterm elections, where the party of the incumbent president often suffers from a gap in enthusiasm.
The fatal police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old girl, in Columbus, Ohio the same day as the Floyd verdict served as a stark reminder to the White House and Democratic lawmakers of the risks of inaction and disappointment if such episodes persist throughout Biden’s first term.
“It will be an important litmus test going forward to see if police reform can actually be accomplished,” said Andrea Headley, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and an expert on race and policing. “For sure, people will hold the president and the vice-president accountable.”
Many Democrats are hoping that Republicans feel even greater pressure than they do to strike a deal, to avoid being tarred with obstructionism and being out-of-touch with shifting public sentiment.
But while Republicans did not dispute the verdict, they shied away from drawing sweeping conclusions about the case. Recent polling from Morning Consult found that while the vast majority of Americans view police violence as a serious problem, the share is smaller than last summer and Republicans are far less likely than Democrats or independents to agree.
“There seems to be bipartisan consensus that something should be done, but the devil is in the details,” said Meghan Pennington, a former Democratic Senate aide now at Hamilton Place Strategies, a consultancy. “Reforms the left views as commonsense are unpalatable on the right, and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Democrats go along with Senator Scott’s proposal.”
If Democrats and the White House cannot reach bipartisan agreement on police reform, they could consider doing it without Republican support, but that would involve breaking the rules requiring a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate to advance ordinary bills — a bridge that they may be unwilling or unable to cross as it risks a backlash.
“I think inherently any sort of sweeping police reform would be divisive to some degree. And that could be a political problem because it can animate your political enemies,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
If no deal is reached on Capitol Hill, the Biden administration is likely to push as hard as it can using executive actions to promote police reforms. The quick move by Merrick Garland, US attorney-general, to probe the practices on the Minneapolis police was seen by some as a sign of the White House’s commitment to a systemic solution to the problem.
“I don’t think people are going to hold Joe Biden responsible for Mitch McConnell’s errors and mistakes,” said Isaac Wright, a Democratic strategist at political consultancy FSSG. “He is doing what is natural to him, and he is speaking from the heart.”