As the presidential election cycle enters a critical phase with the launch of the primary season, President Joe Biden has come across the biggest political challenge in the form of the report by special counsel Robert Hur on the president’s handling of confidential documents.
While it exonerated Biden, it portrayed him as an elderly, forgetful person. It provides ammunition to the core weakness ailing the re-election bid. Hur said one reason that he was sparing Biden prosecution was that any jury was unlikely to convict “an elderly man with a poor memory”.
Many observers refer to it as Biden’s Comey moment--during the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton suffered a major setback when the Obama-appointed FBI Director James Comey severely criticised Hillary for carelessly handling classified documents. Hillary blamed Comey’s intervention as one of the factors behind her loss to Trump.
It is difficult to blame the Republicans on the issue, as the remarks were made by a special counsel appointed by Biden’s attorney general Merrick Garland. Also, it is interesting to note that Hur is a Republican who was a law clerk to former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist (appointed as judge by Nixon and chief justice by Reagan).
It opens up a rift within the administration itself, as Biden’s close aides blame Garland (who was Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court) for ordering a special counsel inquiry in the first place, and secondly for not reining him in sufficiently.
Unfortunately for Biden, it comes at a time when there are already problems in the smooth running of his cabinet--remember Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin kept his cancer diagnosis and subsequent hospitalisation a secret from Biden and the administration, forcing him to apologise later.
The issue is unlikely to go away as there is some truth to the forgetfulness allegation. At a press conference held to defend himself, Biden called the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the “President of Mexico,” further proving the point. Someone like Trump is going to use this point a lot. A couple of days ago, he mixed up French President Macron with former president Mitterrand. Biden, he also called Mitterrand German.
Republicans are already using the issue to allege double standards, (apart from Biden’s competency issue) saying Trump is being prosecuted for a similar charge.
While Democrats have rallied behind Biden, if the issue drags on, it will be a major headache for vulnerable down-ballot candidates. It could affect party unity. An NBC News poll a few days ago showed that nearly 75 per cent Americans are worried about the president’s mental and physical health.
The best news for Biden still is that his most likely opponent will be Donald Trump. He was elected last time for not being Trump, and that USP still holds for him. But the next few days are going to be tough for him as the campaign assesses the damage that has been done. There have not been voices of criticism from within the party, so the candidacy seems safe for now. While theoretically, the Democrats could still ditch Biden and choose a fresh candidate, it is almost practically impossible. It will require an amendment of multiple party regulations, and the party committees in charge of that are all controlled by Biden loyalists.
The other option left is for Biden to relinquish his re-election bid. The last president to do so was another Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Johnson, however, was hugely unpopular because of the Vietnam War. He withdrew in March and a bitterly divided Democratic party put up vice president Hubert Humphrey. In the November election, Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon.
Democrats probably would not want to go down that path once again and would hope that Biden will be able to put his campaign back on track and catch up with Trump who is notching up victory after victory.