NEW YORK (AP) — As he gears up for reelection, President Joe Biden is already facing questions about his ability to convince voters that the economy is performing well. There’s skepticism about the 80-year-old president’s ability to manage a second term. And on Friday, Biden faced a fresh setback when Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to probe his son, Hunter.
Biden’s challenges pale in comparison with his predecessor and possible future rival, Donald Trump, who is facing three criminal indictments, with additional charges expected soon. But the appointment of the special counsel was nonetheless a reminder of the vulnerabilities facing Biden as he wages another election campaign in a deeply uncertain political climate.
There was little immediate sign that Garland’s decision meaningfully changed Biden’s standing within his party. If anything, it underscored the unprecedented nature of the next election. Rather than a battle of ideas waged on the traditional campaign trail, the next push for the presidency may be shaped by sudden legal twists in courtrooms from Washington to Delaware and Miami.
“Prior to Trump, this would be a big deal,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said of Friday’s announcement. “Now, I don’t think it means anything. Trump has made everyone so numb to this stuff.”
Referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, Buckley added, “Because of how dismissive MAGA America is to the very real crimes of Trump and his family, it has numbed the minds of swing voters and Democratic voters or activists who would normally be fully engaged and outraged.”
Polling has consistently shown that Democratic voters were not excited about Biden’s reelection even before Garland’s announcement.
Just 47% of Democrats wanted Biden to run again in 2024, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted in April. Democrats’ enthusiasm for Biden’s presidential campaign has consistently trailed behind Republicans’ enthusiasm for Trump’s: 55% of Republicans said they wanted Trump to run again in the AP-NORC poll. And Biden’s approval rating in polling by Gallup stood at 41% on average over the last three months. Only Jimmy Carter notched a lower average rating in Gallup’s polling at this point in his presidency, while ratings for Trump were about the same at 43%.
Garland announced Friday that he was naming David Weiss, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Delaware, as the special counsel in the Hunter Biden investigation. It comes as plea deal talks involving tax and gun charges in the case Weiss had already been probing hit an impasse.
The appointment of a special counsel ensures that Trump will not stand alone as the only presidential candidate grappling with the fallout of a serious criminal investigation in the midst of the 2024 campaign season.
Of course, the cases are hardly equal in the context of the next presidential election.
There is no evidence that President Biden himself has committed any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Trump has been charged in a plot to undermine democracy for his actions leading up the the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
He’s also facing separate charges for refusing to turn over classified documents after leaving the White House and financial crimes in New York related to a hush money case involving a porn star. And Georgia prosecutors are investigating whether Trump broke state laws by interfering in the 2020 election.
Still, Republicans were hopeful that the new special counsel may ultimately shift attention away from Trump’s baggage while bolstering conservative calls to impeach the Democratic president, a proposal that has divided the GOP on Capitol Hill, which has long sought evidence linking Hunter Biden’s alleged wrongdoings to his father.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, has already obtained thousands of pages of financial records from various members of the Biden family through subpoenas to the Treasury Department and various financial institutions as part of a congressional probe. He released a statement Friday accusing Garland of “trying to stonewall congressional oversight.”
Comer vowed “to follow the Biden family’s money trail.”
Trump, the overwhelming front-runner in the crowded Republican presidential nomination fight, used the opportunity to put his likely general election opponent on the defensive, referring to the “Biden crime family” and the “Biden cartel.”
“If this special counsel is truly independent — even though he failed to bring proper charges after a four year investigation and he appears to be trying to move the case to a more Democrat-friendly venue — he will quickly conclude that Joe Biden, his troubled son Hunter, and their enablers, including the media, which colluded with the 51 intelligence officials who knowingly misled the public about Hunter’s laptop, should face the required consequences,” the Trump campaign said in a statement.
Back in New Hampshire, Buckley acknowledged that voters are not excited about Biden’s reelection.
“But they’re really not excited about Trump,” he said. “There’s a seriousness around this election. People can say they’re not excited (about Biden). They can say, ‘Oh, he shouldn’t run again.’ But the reality is that he’s the only alternative to Trump.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how closely key voters are paying attention.
A Marquette Law School Poll conducted last month found that about three-quarters of Americans had heard about Hunter Biden’s agreement to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of tax evasion and a gun charge. Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to say they have heard “a lot” about the topic, with independents being much less likely to be paying attention.
Democratic strategist Bill Burton suggested the GOP’s focus on the president’s son would backfire.
“From a political standpoint, I think Republicans are stupid to spend so much time talking about the president’s son,” he said. “People are going to be voting on the economy. They’re going to be voting on who’s tougher on social media companies and national security.”
Burton continued, “As a dad, I think it’s pretty disgusting that you would attack someone’s son like this.”
AP polls and surveys reporter Linley Sanders in Washington contributed.