The Democrats’ path forward from the classified documents probe | The Hill

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(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

FILE – President Joe Biden talks with reporters after speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Jan 20, 2023. Senior Democratic lawmakers turned sharply more critical Sunday of President Joe Biden’s handling of classified materials after the FBI discovered additional items with classified markings at Biden’s home.

Despite the political peril and uncertainty facing Joe Biden, the president and his party still have the chance to chart a promising path forward.

New polling by Schoen-Cooperman Research suggests that, while Biden is indeed vulnerable in light of the scandal surrounding his mishandling of classified documents, the Republican Party’s extreme positions and politicization of every aspect of governance give Democrats an opportunity to overcome these obstacles. 

To accomplish this, Biden will need to pivot back to articulating and embodying the principle that got him elected — i.e., prioritizing progress over politics — if only to emphasize that House Republicans would rather pursue bogus investigations than address real problems, like raising the debt ceiling and passing immigration reform. 

Already, there is a sense among the electorate that the Republican Party has become too extreme and is hobbled by ineffective leadership, and Biden and Democrats should capitalize on this sentiment in their public messaging. 

A plurality of registered voters believes that House Republicans are more focused on investigating the president and his party (49 percent) than on passing legislation to address major issues (35 percent), according to our poll

Further, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who kowtowed to extremists in his caucus in order to secure the speakership, is perceived as a weak leader. The majority of voters (53 percent) surveyed agree that McCarthy “conceded too much ground to the conservative House Freedom Caucus in order to be elected Speaker, leaving him with little actual authority and beholden to the far-right.”  

Voters also maintain that the grueling fight McCarthy underwent to become Speaker indicates that he doesn’t have his party’s full support and thus won’t be able to get things done (47 percent), while just 29 percent believe that this won’t affect his power or influence. 

Given the Republican Party’s obvious weaknesses, Biden and Democrats have an opening to position themselves as being the only major party that is interested in doing the hard work of actually governing, which will ultimately leave Republicans trying to defend their indefensible positions. 

In his upcoming State of the Union address, Biden should forthrightly state his support for middle-ground solutions to pressing matters like raising the debt ceiling and passing a federal budget. In doing so, the president can distinguish his party’s bipartisan approach from the extreme one embraced by House Republicans, who want to use Social Security and Medicare as a bargaining chip for a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent) disapprove of. 

This conciliatory language certainly won’t fall on deaf ears, as roughly two-thirds of voters (64 percent) are concerned that Congress will not reach a deal in time to raise the debt ceiling and 73 percent worry that Congress will be unable to pass a budget, forcing the government to shut down.  

Biden can also speak on the need for a compromise on immigration reform that secures the border, gets a handle on illegal immigration and codifies a pathway to citizenship for those brought here illegally as children. Legislation to this effect is both deeply needed and broadly supported by voters (72 percent).

Even with this renewed commitment to bipartisanship, Biden will admittedly still face an uphill battle over the next two years, as just 45 percent of voters approve of his job performance, and only 33 percent believe he deserves reelection.

Further, just over one-third (37 percent) of voters believe Biden has had the right priorities so far as president, while the majority (54 percent) believe he has not paid attention to the country’s most important problems. Voters also cite inflation and the economy, followed by border security and immigration, as their top concerns, yet are twice as likely to blame Democrats (50 percent) rather than Republicans (27 percent) for both of these problems. 

And regarding Biden’s mishandling of classified documents, nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent) believe the president did something illegal either intentionally (34 percent) or unintentionally (29 percent), while only 16 percent are confident that he did nothing illegal. 

To be sure, this scandal has brought on a great deal of instability at an inopportune time for Biden and the Democrats. In addition to muddying the waters surrounding the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into Donald Trump for also mishandling official records, it has increased the likelihood that House Republicans will pursue the impeachment of Biden and members of his administration.

Despite the stark differences between Biden’s and Trump’s cases — Biden’s seemingly involves a series of honest clerical mistakes that were made with a limited number of documents, while Trump had hundreds of records and was allegedly “concealing and removing” documents in an effort to mislead investigators — our data indicates that the public is drawing a false equivalency between the two. 

Voters are slightly more likely to believe that Trump’s case is more serious (31 percent) than Biden’s (28 percent), while 30 percent say both are equally serious. There is also a sense that the media has been fairer to Biden (36 percent) than it has been to Trump (17 percent) and pluralities don’t trust the Department of Justice to fairly and honestly investigate either the current president (40 percent) or the former president (44 percent). 

This is in part attributable to the drip-drip of news that the public has seen on Biden’s case over the last couple of weeks. While the administration is correct from a governance standpoint to proceed cautiously with disclosing this sensitive matter to the public, this has kept the story at the top of the news cycle. House Republicans have used this to their advantage to cast doubt on the administration’s trustworthiness as well as on the legitimacy of the federal government’s investigations.

Simply put, the GOP-led smear campaign against Biden appears to be working to some extent. That being said, Republicans are also dealing with an identity crisis of their own, giving Democrats an opportunity to change the narrative. 

By doubling down on his commitment to bipartisanship and progress this year, Biden can expose Republicans’ extreme positions and disregard for good governance, while also reminding the American people why they elected him in the first place. 

Douglas E. Schoen and Carly Cooperman are pollsters and partners with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. They are co-authors of the book, “America: Unite or Die.”


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