Document Scandal Puts Biden on Defense

Column: What's up with those docs?

President Joe Biden gives a speech on Jan. 12 / Getty Images
January 13, 2023

Joe Biden's best two months since becoming president ended on the evening of January 9, when White House lawyers revealed that classified materials from Biden's years as vice president had been stored in his Washington, D.C., office between 2017 and 2019. A few days later, the White House confirmed that additional secret papers had been found inside Biden’s garage in Wilmington, Delaware. On January 12, attorney general Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate whether Biden broke the law and revealed that another document had been recovered. And the scandal grew.

Biden lapsed into legalese. The West Wing built a stonewall in the press room. Democrats and their media allies pointed out differences between the Biden case and that of former president Trump, who is also under special counsel investigation for inappropriate handling of classified documents and for his actions after the 2020 election. The liberal spin failed to impress House Republicans, who quickly added the controversy to their list of investigations. They want to know why the news was kept secret for so long, and whether the documents are connected in any way to Hunter and James Biden's influence peddling. Fair questions.

The news couldn't have come at a worse time for the president. Biden has been on a winning streak since last November when Democrats avoided a midterm meltdown and the Republican Party lapsed into divisive recriminations. In December, Biden pocketed legislative victories on same-sex marriage and government funding and hosted Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House. He began the new year with a bipartisan event in Kentucky alongside Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile, House Republicans were caught up in an embarrassing, though potentially productive, fight over speaker. As for the economy, the labor market continues to please. Gas prices are down year-over-year. Inflation could be receding. Biden's approval rating is on the upswing.

The McConnell event previewed Biden's strategy for the coming year. Josh Kraushaar of Axios was the first to point out that the president is "quietly pivoting to the middle" as he lays the foundation for a reelection campaign. Highlighting infrastructure projects authorized by his spending bills, as Biden did in Kentucky, is part of the plan. And there appears to be more. A day after his trip to the Bluegrass State, Biden delivered remarks on immigration and proposed measures to relieve the crisis on the southern border. On January 8, he visited El Paso, where he walked along a portion of border wall.

On January 9, a member of the Consumer Products Safety Commission raised the possibility that the federal government might ban gas stoves. The comments ignited public outrage that spooked both the commission and the White House into reversing course. Then, on January 12, Biden had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining ways he and Republicans could work together to reduce the malign influence of Big Tech. "There will be many policy issues we disagree on in the new Congress," Biden wrote, "but bipartisan proposals to protect our privacy and our children; to prevent discrimination, sexual exploitation, and cyberstalking; and to tackle anticompetitive conduct shouldn't separate us."

The outreach to Republicans is not the same as then-president Clinton announcing in 1996 that "the era of big government is over." The Democratic Party has moved too far left for Biden even to contemplate such a rhetorical concession. But he is making a noticeable shift in tone from—and indulging in a clever obfuscation of—the partisan hardball and undiluted progressivism of the past two years.

The logic behind what Mark Halperin calls "Triangulation Lite" runs like this: By addressing the concerns that conservatives and Republicans share with moderates and independents, from crime to illegal immigration to social media contagion, Biden and the Democrats will be in a better position to cast themselves as sober-minded stewards of the economy and entitlements in this year's fight over the debt ceiling. They will be better able to portray former president Trump and the MAGA movement as extremist threats to democracy in 2024. Triangulation Lite draws lessons from Democratic success in last year's Senate and governor's races by targeting suburbanites worried about the direction of the GOP.

The success of Triangulation Lite is not guaranteed. It requires economic recovery, continued success in Ukraine, and Donald Trump's place at the center of the Republican Party. It also depends on Biden's physical and mental condition as well as his competence on the job. That's asking a lot. Since launching his third bid for the presidency in 2019, Biden has benefited more from his opponents' weaknesses than from his own strengths.

Nor have supply shortages, inflation, the border, and the retreat from Afghanistan inspired confidence in Biden's leadership among Republicans, independents, or for that matter Democrats. The red wave may not have materialized nationwide in 2022, but it's not as if the president rallied his party to an incredible victory. Republicans won the House with a majority of votes. And statewide races in Iowa, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida showed how a GOP that has its act together can compete effectively in 2024.

The document drama exposes Biden as a hypocrite. It brings him down to earth just as he was beginning to take off. It lends a helping hand to Republicans while they shake off the dust from the speaker's fight and staff their investigative committees. It's another headache for a president who has never been forthright about his relationship to his family's lobbying and consulting business.

Biden finished 2022 and spent the first week of 2023 on offense. Now he's on defense once more. He doesn't like the feeling. But he better get used to it.