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From the Center

Joe Biden’s new year seemed to be off to such a good start.

The Democrats’ better-than-expected showing in the November elections had quieted talk of a primary challenge to his re-election bid, the brawl among House Republicans to determine their new leader had created a contrast that elevated him in the eyes of voters, and he had begun to stake out centrist turf on immigration and other policy matters to position himself for the 2024 campaign.

But then, “Garage-gate” crashed onto the White House roof with the subtlety and nuance of a drone missile strike. The political news media will almost certainly come up with a catchier title to describe the disclosure and subsequent controversy surrounding the classified documents from his vice presidency that have turned up in non-secured locations. But the furor will create all sorts of political problems for the president at just the time when it appeared that he was developing some post-midterm momentum, and he was establishing himself as a grown-up alternative to what many swing voters saw as disorganized and feckless GOP House revolutionaries.

Biden’s advisors have moved aggressively to point out the distinctions between the president’s situation and that of his predecessor, who left the White House with a trove of sensitive information last January. Former President Donald Trump retained a much larger number of documents at Mar-a-Lago than Biden had in his possession, and Biden had been much more cooperative in his dealings with legal authorities once this information had been discovered. But Republicans have adroitly seized on the parallels between the two men, presidents who held onto sensitive national security information at a time when they should not have been.

An ongoing debate about the specifics of the two situations does Biden no favors: it overshadows his message about the economy, Ukraine and other topics that work to his benefit. Instead, the controversy traps him in an ongoing argument in which his strongest argument is that he was less irresponsible than Trump. More damaging than the distraction caused by the uproar is that it undermines the central premise of Biden’s presidency. In a country that is essentially divided ideologically and politically, Biden’s most important promise in the 2020 campaign was his intention of restoring “normalcy” to the White House and to the country.

Voters who were fatigued, frustrated or embarrassed by Trump’s antics could be reassured that Biden would restore if not a missing dignity to the Oval Office, at the very least a more traditional level of maturity and competence.

And that was Biden’s core argument: that he was competent, that he knew what he was doing, and that he had the necessary experience to avoid self-created catastrophe. The hard-core Trump voters didn’t care: they were excited by their hero’s combative and politically incorrect manner. But voters occupying the determinative space close to the center of the political spectrum ultimately turned to Biden less out of ideological conviction than a need for reliability and reassurance that adults would be in charge of the country again.

So it was not a coincidence that Biden’s first significant nosedive in the polls took place immediately following his administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan during his first summer in office. Even though most Americans agreed with the president’s decision to leave, the manner in which the departure of U.S. troops was handled and the subsequent mass bloodshed caused this country’s voters to question whether Biden’s years in government had actually prepared him for the challenges of the presidency. While the easing of inflation (along with Trump’s ongoing controversies) has been the biggest contributor to Biden’s improved standing, his successful oversight of the war in Ukraine has been of huge importance in restoring his credibility – and competence – in the eyes of the voters.

And now that hard-earned reputation might be slipping away again. Biden has been greatly helped by the ongoing contrast that Trump provides him, but the news coverage of the January 6 investigations has subsided, at least for the time being, and the uproar over the Mar-a-Lago documents has been neutralized. So that advantage is much murkier than it was in either 2020 or 2022. 

Biden and his team need to figure out a way to get this behind them – and fast. But that is beginning to look less and less likely. Trump has rescued Biden before, and he can certainly do it again. Right now, though, it appears that Biden is the one throwing a life preserver to his old nemesis.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.