Joe Biden was scoring plenty of political points.
And then, like Tom Brady throwing an interception in the end zone, it fell apart, reviving questions about his age and future.
For the 80-year-old president, the classified documents fiasco fueled chatter that maybe he’s not the best standard-bearer for the party in 2024. For the 45-year-old quarterback, his do-or-die flameout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could lead to his retirement – if he sticks with such a move, unlike last year.
After struggling with awful polls and Democratic doubts, Biden had regained his momentum. The evaporation of the red wave, with Democrats holding the Senate, was the most tangible evidence and quieted most of the naysayers in his party.
But it was deeper than that. Once mocked for believing he could work with the other party, Biden passed a raft of bipartisan legislation, from gun safety to computer chips to aiding ailing veterans. He even appeared with Mitch McConnell to celebrate a Kentucky bridge project under the infrastructure law. And inflation is finally declining.
What’s more, the president was leading the western alliance in helping Ukraine against Russian bombardment, even providing such offensive weapons as Patriot missiles.
And while he was on the high road, his once-and-possibly-future opponent Donald Trump was battling a Justice Department investigation into, among other things, his mishandling of classified documents. “How could anyone be that irresponsible?” Biden asked.
And now he has to eat those words. Biden and his team have totally botched the handling of the classified documents from his VP days found at a think-tank office, his Wilmington home and next to the Corvette in his garage.
The media have turned on Biden not just because the story has come out in dribs and drabs, but because the president and his people sat on this damaging information for two months and still haven’t explained why. It has been a tutorial in how not to handle a scandal-tinged story.
And by the way, there’s no need to accept the conventional wisdom that Biden will only tick off DOJ if he and his lawyers talk about the case. He has every right to defend himself – and should couple that with an apology for what at the very least is sheer sloppiness.
Now it’s hard to imagine a criminal case against Biden and his staffers, given that his people discovered the documents and voluntarily returned them to the National Archives. The Trump case is obviously different because he argued during a subpoena battle that he had the right to keep classified documents, and another 100 were discovered during the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago.
So why are there renewed doubts about Biden and a second term? It’s a gut instinct that the doubts never really went away but were suppressed by his winning streak.
In late December, before we knew anything about his classified documents, the AP wrote: “The speculation reflects a persistent, though often privately expressed, skepticism among even some of Biden’s allies that the 80-year-old president will ask voters to keep him in the White House until he’s 86.”
Biden has just seemed unsteady as the classified papers flap has unfolded. When asked about the matter by Fox’s Peter Doocy, the president stiffly read a statement – with lots of stumbles–rather than looking into the camera and making a strong defense. That, in turn, reminds people of his age.
Yesterday was the fifth straight day that Biden has declined to talk about the mess. After some remarks with the visiting Dutch prime minister, he sat mutely as reporters shouted questions before being ushered out. That hardly projects a take-charge image.
The more important point is that Biden’s own problems with classified papers makes it extremely unlikely that Trump will be charged. Attorney General Merrick Garland is obsessed with the appearance of fairness, and he knows it will be seen as a fundamental double standard if his boss walks and the only declared Republican candidate is brought to trial.
Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle says that at a time when his media influence is fading, “to be indicted and hauled into court for history’s most heavily publicized trial would invigorate Trump, and the spectacle would galvanize his dwindling base of support. He’d go from grumbling irrelevance in the gilded prison of his Mar-a-Lago mausoleum to ringmaster of a circus trial that would dominate every news outlet.” And that’s a strong point.
I covered Joe Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1987. Having wanted that prize his entire adult life, it’s hard for me to imagine him walking away. But even after discussing another run with his family over the holidays, Biden is under no obligation to jump in right away. Yes, he’s freezing the field, but he could wait another five or six months before making it official. It’s only the beginning of 2023.
If Biden’s missteps amount to a get-out-of-jail card for Trump, so be it. Whether it’s in the Republican primaries or a rematch with Biden, the best way to decide Donald Trump’s fate is at the ballot box rather than on the witness stand.