Don’t Kid Yourself. The Classified Documents Story Is Bad for Biden.
Mr. Alter, as of 6am EST this morning, is no longer employed by the NY Times. We wish to apologize for any upset (or PTSD) his vicious attack on our President may have caused.
Don’t Kid Yourself. The Classified Documents Story Is Bad for Biden.
Jan. 20, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
By Jonathan Alter, NY Times
Mr. Alter, a longtime political journalist, writes the newsletter Old Goats and has written books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.
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Remember the iconic image of a smiling Joe Biden in his 1967 Corvette Stingray? It conjured charming Uncle Joe, a retro-cool guy who’d been around the track and knew how to handle it.
Four months after President Biden called Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents “irresponsible,” that vintage car — parked at the president’s home in Delaware next to his own boxes containing classified material — has been transformed into a shiny symbol of hypocrisy. If you went into a G.O.P. whataboutism lab and asked for a perfect gaffe, you’d come out with the president snapping last week to a Fox News reporter, “My Corvette is in a locked garage.”
Well, the storage room at Mar-a-Lago is locked, too.
Just two weeks ago, Democrats were chortling over chaos in the G.O.P., convinced that far-right Republican control of the House would help them in 2024. Then they experienced the exquisite torture that comes with the slow release of politically damaging information, in this case the acknowledgment of classified documents found in Mr. Biden’s former offices and Wilmington home. Now he’s fully in the barrel — targeted by powerful congressional committees, aggressive reporters looking for scoops and a methodical new special counsel, Robert Hur, to match Jack Smith, the special counsel investigating Mr. Trump.
The optical equivalence between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden is phony, of course. Mr. Trump is a grifter who appears to have intentionally taken hundreds of classified documents, bragging that he kept the folders marked “classified” or “confidential” as “‘cool’ keepsakes.” He said of his stash of classified documents, according to several advisers, “It’s not theirs; it’s mine,” and seemingly defied a subpoena to return the documents, thereby exposing him to possible prosecution for obstruction of justice. Mr. Biden, by contrast, was sloppy and slow to search for and disclose the existence of about 20 stray classified documents but is fully cooperating with authorities.
Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, this distinction cannot easily survive the miasma of congressional and special counsel subpoenas, relentless questions from reporters and fresh allegations of impropriety that signal the arrival of a new episodic political drama. Many voters with better things to do with their time than parse the nuances of presidential record keeping may casually conclude that both men are careless, lying politicians.
On one level, the classified documents imbroglio is just an acrimonious prelude to the 2024 campaign, a story that will surface, disappear, then surface again with tiresome predictability. But Mr. Biden’s new problems run deeper than that. They represent both a challenge to his core political brand of honor and decency and the start of a more intense, potentially combative period of scrutiny for a president poised to seek re-election. All of which suggests that we may look back on January of 2023 as the end of a relatively brief era in American political life — a period, for all its turmoil, when two Democratic presidents avoided being enmeshed in the grinding machinery of scandal that has otherwise characterized Washington for half a century.
All 10 American presidencies since 1973 have faced investigation by a special counsel or independent prosecutor, except one: Barack Obama’s. For eight years, Mr. Obama and his vice president and other high-ranking officials were seen as figures of unusual rectitude, and the impression of integrity returned when Mr. Biden took office after four years of wall-to-wall corruption. But now this sharp ethical contrast with Mr. Trump has been dulled. That complicates the president’s expected re-election campaign — and could even short-circuit it.
Most Democrats still think Mr. Biden is honest, and they view his accomplishments on the economy, climate, infrastructure and defending democracy as far more significant than this lapse. But it’s hard to exaggerate the level of Democratic exasperation with him for squandering a huge political advantage on the Mar-a-Lago story and for muddying what may have been the best chance to convict Mr. Trump on federal charges. Mr. Biden’s more serious problem may be with independents, whom he carried by nine points in 2020. Unforced errors can take a toll with them. Even as the classified documents story eventually fades — it will most likely not be a first-tier issue next year — swing voters may see him in a harsher light.
To understand why, it’s necessary to look back more than a dozen years. From the first moments of Mr. Obama’s presidency, Republicans attacked him for everything from having been born in Kenya (a racist lie pushed by Mr. Trump, among others) to wearing tan suits. Even when it distracted Mr. Obama, he brushed it all off his shoulders.
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That’s because the Obama-Biden administration set an exceptionally high ethical standard and usually met it. Mr. Obama’s scandal-less White House liked to keep things “tight,” as he put it — sometimes too tight. If any appointee stepped out of line, the response was often to fire first and ask questions later, as Shirley Sherrod, a Black official at the Agriculture Department, learned in 2010 after Fox News aired a highly edited tape taken from a right-wing website that made it seem she had delivered a racist speech to the N.A.A.C.P. Ms. Sherrod’s remarks were in fact taken badly out of context, but by the time this was recognized, she had already been dismissed. (The agency subsequently offered to rehire her.)
Essentially all Obama-era “scandals” collapsed under scrutiny or never touched his White House. Oceans of ink were spilled chronicling the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel company that received loan guarantees from the Energy Department. But no improper conduct was ever established, and the overall loan guarantee program actually turned a profit for the government. Likewise, a poorly planned and ill-fated sting at the U.S.-Mexico border called Operation Fast and Furious brought inconclusive congressional hearings and a contempt citation for Attorney General Eric Holder but did not tarnish Mr. Obama.
Mr. Biden’s vulnerabilities are closer to home. His allies are reportedly claiming the story will blow over because it’s just D.C. noise, but that was not Hillary Clinton’s experience with her emails and server. In the same way that the grueling Benghazi hearings from 2014 through 2016 softened Mrs. Clinton up for later attacks, the Biden documents story may give new life to unproven allegations about his connections to unsavory Chinese executives in business with members of his family. Did foreign nationals have access to the mishandled classified documents? That’s highly unlikely. But Republican lawmakers will use Democratic charges about security breaches at Mar-a-Lago as an excuse to open outlandish lines of inquiry.
And the G.O.P. now has subpoena power to delve into red-meat targets like the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop and any communications on it that involved the current president. James Comer, the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, will almost certainly haul Hunter Biden and his uncle James Biden, the president’s brother, before the committee to testify about their suspiciously lucrative deals with foreign firms and the way their business intersected disastrously with Hunter Biden’s squalid personal life.
To navigate the coming storm, Joe Biden needs to up his political game — no small feat for a man of his age — and avoid becoming his own worst enemy. First, he will have to keep his famous temper out of public view. If Uncle Joe morphs into Testy Joe, over his son or his handling of classified documents or anything else, his problems will worsen. Beyond an improving economy and a successful conclusion to the war in Ukraine, the best medicine for his political ailments would be a surprising legislative victory. In the new Congress, 18 House Republicans represent districts that Mr. Biden carried in 2020. If Mr. Biden can persuade just a handful of them to vote against defaulting on the national debt and sending the global economy into a depression — a harder task than it sounds because of all-but-inevitable right-wing primary challenges — he’ll get credit for averting a major economic crisis.
But even if Mr. Biden puts wins on the board, survives venomous Republican lawmakers and gets off with a slap on the wrist in the special counsel’s report, the classified documents story has likely stripped him of a precious political asset with some independents and Democrats: the benefit of the doubt. The general feeling that Mr. Biden — like Mr. Obama — is clean and scandal-free has been replaced by the normal Washington assumption of some level of guilt.
Republicans are ferocious attack dogs, especially when they have something to chew on. And Mr. Biden, a better president than candidate, has never had the nimbleness necessary for good defense. When he first ran for president in 1988, he was forced to withdraw amid minor charges of plagiarism that a more dexterous politician might have survived. Over the years, his skills on the stump deteriorated. He performed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020 and recovered in South Carolina and won the nomination only because Democrats concluded en masse that he was the best candidate to beat Mr. Trump.
That remains the prevailing assumption inside the Democratic Party: He did it before and can do it again. But it’s not clear that rank-and-file voters agree. Last year a New York Times/Siena College poll showed nearly two-thirds of Democrats didn’t want Mr. Biden to run. While his standing improved after the midterms, he’s down in the first polls released since the documents story broke.
The president is now an elderly swimmer in a sea of sharks. And some of them may even be Democrats. It’s not hard to envision an ambitious primary challenger arguing, more in sorrow than in anger, that he or she supports most of the Biden record but elections are about the future and the party needs a more vigorous candidate. (Mr. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term.) Democratic leaders will be shocked and appalled by the upstart’s temerity in spoiling the party’s impressive unity. But New Hampshire is full of anti-establishment independents, and basically the entire state is furious with Mr. Biden for proposing to bump its primary to the second week of the schedule. He could easily lose or be weakened there, opening the door for other Democrats. Which ones? That’s what primaries are for.
In the meantime, the president isn’t looking good in polls pitting him against Republicans in hypothetical 2024 matchups. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump have been running about even, a depressing finding for Democrats. And if the G.O.P. nominates a younger candidate like Ron DeSantis, Mr. Biden could be the octogenarian underdog in the general election.
Imagine instead that the president takes a leaf from Nancy Pelosi and decides not to run. Mr. Comer and the clownish members of his committee would probably end up training most of their fire on Democrats not named Biden. Democrats would “turn the page,” as Mr. Obama recommended in 2008, to a crop of fresher candidates, probably governors, who contrast better with Mr. Trump and would have good odds of beating a younger Republican. And the smiling old gentleman in the Corvette — his shortcomings forgotten and his family protected — would assume his proper place as a bridge between political generations and arguably the most accomplished one-term president in American history.
Jonathan Alter, a longtime political journalist, writes the newsletter Old Goats and has written books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.