The White House and Democrats in Washington are scrambling to limit any lasting political hit to US president Joe Biden from the furore over his handling of classified material, which has rattled the run-up to his expected bid for re-election in 2024.
The president and his top aides and lawyers have faced mounting criticism in recent days for being sloppy in their treatment of sensitive government records from Biden’s time in the Obama administration, which were discovered at his private office and residence starting in early November.
They have also faced a backlash for a lack of transparency in failing to disclose the recovery of the documents to the public until last week in a series of statements, even though they informed the justice department of the findings every step of the way.
The revelations have given Republicans unexpected political ammunition against Biden at a time when the president’s approval ratings have been steadily improving. They have also triggered a sudden unease among Democrats who had been rallying around the president after a better than expected performance in November’s midterm elections and improving economic data.
“It hasn’t been the White House’s finest hour — the drip, drip, drip of statements has not been helpful,” said Christopher Whipple, author of The Fight of His Life, a book released this week on Biden’s presidency. “There’s political damage here and the damage goes to one of Joe Biden’s most valuable assets, which is trust. That’s what is at stake here.”
So far there is no indication that Biden is rethinking his intention to run for a second term in the White House in the 2024 election in light of the revelations, and Democrats still remain overwhelmingly supportive of his candidacy next year.
But White House officials and Democrats are trying to defend Biden from a torrent of new Republican-led accusations and congressional probes. They are also fighting to damp down any suggestion of equivalence between his case and the federal probe against former president Donald Trump for his retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, which involved a months-long stand-off with the justice department.
“Joe Biden will win in the court of law but he needs to win in the court of public opinion too,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. “The difference between what Biden did and Trump did is night and day. There’s no comparison . . . I do think, however, the Biden White House could absolutely have done a better job and needs to do a better job communicating about it with the American people.”
On Tuesday Ian Sams, a White House spokesperson, held a call with reporters in which he said Biden believed he was handling the issue “the right way” and defended the president’s response.
“He believes deeply in the rule of law,” Sams said. “We’re also providing the public with information about this matter as is appropriate, but we’re of course limited in what we’re going to be able to say, given the ongoing DoJ review.”
He also turned the table on Republicans, accusing them of hypocrisy after they played down any wrongdoing by Trump when it came to hoarding classified materials. “They’ve decided that it’s time for more political stunts and theatre. They are faking outrage even though they defended the former president’s actions,” Sams said.
Democrats say it is crucial for Biden to continue emphasising that contrast. “No one would say this is ideal but inherently voters view President Biden as more responsible than Donald Trump, and the comparison between the two circumstances works in our favour,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist.
Some Democrats have acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation for Biden even as they give him the benefit of the doubt. “It’s certainly embarrassing, right?” Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan senator, told ABC on Sunday. “They [the White House] don’t think it’s the right thing and they have been moving to correct it.”
Other Democratic lawmakers believe that Biden should be more explicit in clearing up a number of key facts and his own role in the situation.
“I think that there are questions that the administration is going to have to answer,” Jeff Jackson, a newly elected House Democrat from North Carolina, told CNN on Sunday. “I think those questions are going to maybe have to be answered personally by the president himself. I think that the sooner that happens, the better. Did he do anything to obstruct the investigation? Did he do anything to obstruct the return of those documents?”
Yet Jackson insisted he would still back Biden in 2024. “He won the last one, and I think he would be the odds-on favourite winning the next one,” he said.
So far there has not been enough polling to judge whether Biden is suffering politically. His approval rating is still hovering close to 44 per cent, its highest level since late 2021, according to the RealClear Politics Average.
Whipple said he believed Biden would “get past this” and that he had not yet “taken on too much water”, but added that his view was contingent on the absence of any “big revelation we’re not aware of”.
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, said Republicans were engaged in wishful thinking if they planned to make political gains from Biden’s handling of the documents.
“Over time, what will come to dominate our discourse are going to be the things that should dominate our discourse, which are the economy and Ukraine and immigration,” he said. “These issues around the various investigations are going to be very secondary for the public in that there are things that are far more important for voters.”