New Year, New Biden?

After a shaky two years in the White House, the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023 heralded what seemed to be a new lease on life for Joe Biden. 

The November 2022 midterm elections, in which many predicted a Republican (GOP) “red wave,” did not result in the overwhelming electoral rebuke of the Democrats that many had expected. At the federal level alone, Democrats expanded their control of the Senate from 50 to 51 seats and, while Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives, it was only by a small margin of 222 seats to the 213 won by Democrats. 

Having ended the previous year on a positive note, the Biden administration also received welcome news in the opening days of 2023. On the one hand, the Republican House majority publicly struggled through a five-day floor fight to elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. More specifically, President Biden’s average approval rating reached 44.1 per cent, its highest watermark since October 2021. While his poll numbers still remain well below the 50 per cent, this improvement spells good news. 

The Biden Document Scandal

However, Biden’s lucky streak seems to have ended with the discovery of multiple batches of Obama-Biden administration classified documents, the latest discovery on January 21st, and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate. From a legal standpoint, Biden appears to be relatively safe from criminal exposure: his team swiftly co-operated with the National Archives as soon as the documents were discovered, unlike his predecessor and former President, Donald Trump. Politically, however, CNN analyst Stephen Collinson acknowledges that the White House’s later revelation of other batches of classified documents, as well as Biden’s attempts to dissuade fears, “set up the drip, drip of disclosures guaranteed to supercharge a Washington scandal”.  

The political damage of this faux pas comes at a crucial moment in Biden’s political career as he considers running for a second term and his chances of winning. Some analysts have sounded the alarm regarding the document scandal’s potential damage to his re-election campaign. As this document scandal emerged during a crucial time in Biden’s presidency, it is important to gauge its potential effect on Biden’s 2024 calculations. 

Lack of Internal Challenges from Democrats

The first reason is that, although many Americans are concerned about his age, there is little chance he will face a serious challenger in the Democratic primary elections. Indeed, many of those who could give Biden a run for his money seem to have already called it quits. Among those figures are two of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have sworn to support Biden’s re-election campaign if he were to pursue a second term. Biden also enjoys the backing of other power brokers within the party, such as Jim Clyburn, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.  Given that Biden still maintains support from potential rivals and the party’s leadership, this document scandal alone is unlikely to affect his decision to run in 2024. 

Potential Rematch Against Donald Trump

Another reason why Biden’s document scandal is unlikely to change his 2024 calculations, and damage his chances of winning re-election, is because 2024 is looking increasingly like a re-match against Donald Trump, who declared his candidacy shortly after the midterm elections in November 2022. Like Biden, Trump has also recently run into trouble with keeping classified documents, an episode most frequently associated with the FBI executing a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Given that both men have had trouble with classified documents, it likely nullifies the effectiveness of any attack made regarding the subject. 

To be sure, the Republican presidential field is far from set in stone, but Donald Trump is still polling very well against his potential adversaries, including rising GOP star Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. A recent hypothetical primary match-up between the two had Trump holding a lead of 17 points at 48 per cent over DeSantis’ 31 per cent. If Trump’s dominance with the party’s base continues, it stands to reason that he will likely win the party’s nomination to be the GOP candidate in 2024. Given the likelihood that Trump will win the Republican nomination, it stands to reason that Biden will be even more encouraged to seek re-election given he likely believes he can, and should, beat Trump again.

The Call of the Presidency

Finally, Biden’s scandal with documents is unlikely to affect whether he runs or not in 2024 because it’s very unlikely, particularly in recent history, for a sitting president to be content with just one-term in office. Presidential historian Mark Updegrove argues that “a second term offers another chance at winning at the highest level,” an appealing aspect to the ambitious, competitive people who often occupy the presidency. Biden’s potential rematch with Trump is only further proof of this fact, as both men will be seeking a second term in the White House.

While the 2024 elections remain far off, it seems that Biden’s ongoing scandal with classified documents will not affect his decision to run in 2024. Instead, he will likely be encouraged by the lack of a primary challenger, a potential rematch against his rival Trump, and the allure of being a two-term president.

Edited by Marine Matsumura

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore obtained via Flickr under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.