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When President Biden is the center of attention and not Donald Trump, it's generally not a good thing for the president and his re-election prospects.
That’s because, like Trump, Biden has glaring vulnerabilities. His biggest issue was front and center this week: concerns about his age.
The special counsel's report on Biden's handling of classified documents did not accuse him of a crime, but special counsel Robert Hur, a Republican, appeared to go out of his way to include damning comments about Biden's allegedly faulty memory , as in referring to that Biden, 81, “did not remember, even after several years, the death of his son Beau.”
It was spicy.
“It whitewashes him legally and brings him to his knees politically,” Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, said of the report.
Biden makes a mistake in defending himself
The 388-page report ignited a political firestorm — and a clumsy response from the White House and the president himself.
Biden angrily dismissed Hur's assertion, saying in a news conference Thursday night that he felt questions about Beau were “none of their damn business.”
The president choked up as he pointed to a rosary he wore on his wrist in memory of Beau, then thundered: “I don't need anyone to remind me when he died.”
If Biden had left it at that, maybe that's what people remembered about the press conference.
Instead, Biden ended up falling directly into the stereotype exposed by Hur when he incorrectly declared that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was the “president of Mexico” while answering a question about the negotiations for hostages in progress with Israel and Hamas.
How the report fueled an existing narrative
It is a mistake. Verbal slip-ups happen. Everyone is making them, including Trump, who is only four years younger than Biden. Trump often meanders and recently appeared to confuse his primary opponent Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; on more than half a dozen occasions over the past year, he has mistakenly referred to former President Barack Obama when he should have said Biden; and while in Iowa, called “Sioux City” “Sioux Falls”, which is 90 miles down the road in South Dakota.
But because more and more Americans are worried with Biden's age and ability to get the job done in a second term than they are with Trump's age, every time Biden makes a mistake it will have more political resonance.
“It’s certainly true that anything that feeds into the main negative narrative is particularly harmful,” Begala said. “For [Bill] Clinton was cheating, because [George W.] Bush was “stupid”, Obama “elitist”, that's why when Obama said 57 states, it didn't hurt him. If it was Bush, it would have been.”
“Obviously, with Biden, it’s ‘old.’ So it really hurts him a lot.”
At the White House on Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris defended the Biden she sees out of the public eye, particularly after Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7, when Biden sat for hours with Hur to depositions.
“I attended almost every meeting with the president in the hours and days that followed,” Harris said, noting that Biden “was in front of everything, coordinating and directing the leaders who are in charge of American national security , not to mention our national security.” allies around the world for days and until now – months. Thus, the manner in which the President's behavior in this report has been characterized could not be more factually incorrect and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous.
“Fair or not, this only amplified Biden's biggest challenge,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser in the Obama White House, said of the special counsel's report. “This shows up in all the surveys and focus groups.”
Axelrod went viral in November for asking if it was “wise” for Biden to run for re-election after a series of polls in swing states showed him losing to Trump.
“A lot of people have made judgments about his age and his command, dismissed his accomplishments and blamed all the problems on him,” Axelrod said.
This irritates the White House. Democrats don't have a clear idea on how to handle the issue of Biden's age or how to field the oldest president in history as a candidate. He is unlikely to do many live television interviews or massive campaign rallies. And his age raises the stakes with every public appearance, like his State of the Union address in less than a month.
Where Biden has an opening against Trump
To be sure, the pandemic may have conditioned voters not to expect a candidate to attend as many events and large rallies as in previous elections. This could give the Biden team an opportunity to think creatively about playing to their strengths, in small groups, as when he I went to a barbecue in North Carolina and went viral.
Additionally, the economic environment has become less dire, Biden is a recognizable brand, and, most importantly, he has an opponent who, in many surveys, is more hated than Biden and faces far more serious legal problems.
Hur himself pointed out in his report that what Trump allegedly did with his handling of classified documents dwarfs anything Biden has done.
“Unlike the evidence implicating Mr. Biden,” Hur wrote, “the allegations made in Mr. Trump's indictment, if proven, would present serious aggravating facts. Specifically, after being given multiple chances to return classified documents and avoid prosecution. Mr. Trump allegedly did the opposite. According to the indictment, he not only refused to return the documents for many months, but he also obstructed justice by enlisting others to destroy evidence and then lie about it.
In the end, Trump might not have been charged either if he had simply handed things over.
But if anything, this whole ordeal highlights why Trump is also so politically vulnerable. He apparently felt that the rules did not apply to him, that the boxes upon boxes of classified documents found at his home in Florida should belong to him, and allegedly hid them on purpose and chose not to cooperate fully.
It's emblematic of why so many people see Trump as a threat to democracy. He lied to the country in an attempt to stay in power and plotted to overturn an election he lost, falsely convincing millions that the election was stolen and he is using it as fuel for another election.
Not a revelation for voters, but a warning for the campaign
So, with nine months until Election Day, the Hur report and Biden's Mexico-Egypt debacle are unlikely to have been a turning point in the campaign.
“The president’s age is no surprise to anyone,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton aide. “It's not a new data point. He was elected comfortably at the age of 77 four years ago. So in many ways it's ingrained. People aren't coming to Joe Biden in search of youthful vigor – he has been at an advanced stage since he was elected vice president 16 years ago. The country turned to him in 2020 to lower the temperature and restore some normalcy , and this happened as a whole.”
Many Democrats would prefer someone else to be at the top of the ticket in 2024, and there is a wide range of Democratic possibilities. But there's no indication that Biden is stepping down because, frankly, he doesn't seem to want to.
The Biden campaign has stepped up attacks on Trump in recent weeks, but outside groups supporting him have spent more than $50 million in 2023, mostly on ads touting Biden's accomplishments, such as efforts to lower food prices. insulin, pass a child care tax credit and push for renewable energy.
And his approval ratings have only decreased.
Biden was elected because of Trump (and his botched handling of the COVID pandemic). Begala said he hopes this week will prompt Biden and his team to focus more and fully launch into an anti-Trump campaign mode, because fundamentally the framework of this election has not changed.
The question remains: What matters more: Biden's age or his dislike of Trump?
“Everything has to be about Trump,” Begala said. “It's the only way. The only way is a completely negative campaign.”