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Floyd's death becomes central focus of 2020 presidential campaign

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left,  on

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left,  on March 12, and President Donald Trump on April 5. Credit: AP / Matt Rourke, left, and AP / Patrick Semansky

WASHINGTON — The death of George Floyd has pushed long-standing issues of racial discord and police brutality to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race as President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden respond in starkly different tones to the national outcry.

Trump, declaring himself “president of law and order,” insisted on a militarized response to quell the protests, urging state governors to “dominate” as looters  seized on some demonstrations. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, condemned the destruction of property, but said those actions should not be conflated with the calls for change coming from those who protest peacefully. 

An election season already shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, and the ensuing economic challenges, now faces another defining moment in the protests over the state of policing, said William Howell, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

“This is an important moment in the election,” Howell said. “Both because the immediate issue is one that is vitally important to our politics in our country and because it features in rather stark relief the choice that's being put before the American public. The choice that’s being put before the American public with these two candidates is not just a bundle of conservative policy commitments, and a bundle of liberal policy commitments. It has to do with issues of character.”

On Thursday, Trump announced he will soon sign an executive order "that will encourage police departments nationwide to meet the most current professional standards for the use of force, including tactics for deescalation." His pledge came nearly two weeks after Biden announced he would create a national police misconduct database in his first 100 days in office if elected, and has voiced his support for proposals rolled-out by congressional Democrats this week aimed at addressing police misconduct. 

In the days following Floyd’s fatal Memorial Day arrest, in which a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, Trump promised Floyd’s family that “justice will be served” and ordered the Department of Justice to expedite an investigation. Those initial conciliatory messages were soon outnumbered by the president's tweets and statements calling for "dominance" against the protesters.

Trump has since faced backlash over the move earlier this month to forcibly remove protesters in Lafayette Park across from the White House — an effort aided by pepper spray and smoke canisters — to clear a path for Trump to walk to St. John’s Church and stand for photos in front of the historic church, which had been damaged by a basement fire. That same day, Biden met with religious leaders in Wilmington, Delaware, taking a knee in solidarity with Floyd.

Congressional Democrats note that several of the mechanisms the Department of Justice previously employed to hold troubled cops and police departments accountable were repealed or relaxed by Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Before leaving his office in November 2018, Sessions signed a last-minute order that made it tougher for the department to obtain court-ordered agreements known as consent decrees that forced local departments with widespread civil rights violations to overhaul their agencies. 

Sessions also set expiration dates on the consent decrees, overriding the Obama administration’s practice of keeping the decrees indefinitely until reforms were made and documented. Sessions argued the Obama-era policy hurt morale, but civil rights groups have argued the changes have made it harder to compel departments to enact reforms.

Biden has said the current state of unrest must be met with legislation to address “systemic racism," but White House officials have repeatedly dismissed describing the country's law enforcement system as beset by systemic racism, instead saying the actions are the result of "a few bad apples." .

With Biden's homestate of Delaware easing its stay-at-home orders, the Democrat has sought to campaign beyond the state. He recently flew to Houston to meet with Floyd's family before his funeral, and in a June 2 speech in Philadelphia Biden also gave his endorsement to legislation proposed by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) that would bar law enforcement officers from using chokeholds to restrain an individual. Jeffries' proposal is part of a sweeping criminal justice reform package unveiled by congressional Democrats earlier in the week.

Major national polls conducted in the wake of Floyd’s death have all showed a majority of voters disapproving of Trump’s overall handling of race relations and the protests.

More than half of voters polled by Monmouth University — 60% — said they had little to no confidence in Trump’s ability to handle race relations, compared with 46% who had no confidence in Biden. The poll, conducted between May 28 and June 1, indicated that about one-third of the 742 respondents reported that race relations would be a major factor in who they voted for president. The poll has a margin or error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

A poll of voters by Emerson College conducted on June 2 and June 3 found that 47% of respondents disapproved of the president’s response to Floyd’s death and the resulting protest. The poll of 1,431 voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

More than half of voters polled by CBS News — 55% — disapproved of Trump’s response to the events in Minnesota, according to the poll of 1,309 adults conducted between May 29 and June 2. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Meena Bose, director of the Hofstra University's Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, said the current state of the race presents challenges to both Trump and Biden.

“It's going to be very difficult I think to make a case for ‘law and order’ and for bringing stability when the president is the person who's in charge right now,” Bose said. “That brings up the question ‘if he's not able to address it now, how is he going to do so better in a second term?’ It's a challenge for the president to run as an outsider in 2020. That was a strong case in 2016, but difficult to do four years later. I think the challenge for the former vice president as someone who's not holding office now, and not able to go out on the campaign trail in the traditional way, is to communicate confidence to build voter turnout.”

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