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Mellman: Could The Biden Punditry Be Wrong About Public Opinion?

President Biden walks to the Oval Office
Associated Press-Evan Vucci
President Biden walks to the Oval Office after arriving at the White House, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Washington.

How wrong can a news outlet be?

The Washington Free Beacon’s headline screamed, “Poll: Biden’s Approval Rating Craters Amid Classified Docs Scandal.” 

Based on the commentariat’s assessment, it could have been true.

But it wasn’t. Not at all. 

The Reuters-Ipsos poll, which the Free Beacon reported, actually showed President Biden’s approval rating improving by 1 point since the previous month’s poll.

It’s not the only poll suggesting improvement. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of surveys measuring the president’s performance rating reveals a 2-point improvement since November’s election, and provides no indication of recent decline in Biden’s standing with the public. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that finding classified documents at the president’s home improved his image, but it does seem that, contrary to pundits’ predictions, it has not particularly damaged him. 

Of course, today’s polls don’t tell us what the polls will say tomorrow — things could change as events unfold — but, thus far, there is no evidence of serious harm.

Since the news broke that President Biden, like former President Trump, held some classified documents at insecure locations, the press and pundits seem to have been convinced it would lead to the current president’s political demise. 

While the commentariat itself clearly recognizes the vast differences between the Biden and Trump cases, it laments the “fact” that the American people will be unable to comprehend distinctions evident to the political cognoscenti. 

Wrong again. Americans do see clear differences between President Biden and former President Trump on this issue.

While citizens aren’t familiar with the statutes, nor do they necessarily care about their content, the law makes awareness and intent central — and the public intuitively understands their import.

The law is clear. “Whoever, being an officer […] of the United States, and, by virtue of his office […] becomes possessed of documents […] or materials containing classified information […] knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents […] at an unauthorized location shall” have violated the law.

A YouGov survey found just 39 percent of respondents saying the president intentionally took classified documents, and most of those were Republicans, always inclined to believe the worst about Biden.

By contrast, 50 percent of Americans are convinced Trump purposely removed classified material from the White House.

More important, by a 23-point margin,  Americans believe Biden cooperated in returning the documents, while, by a 10-point margin, they understood Trump had not cooperated.

So, on the one hand, an unintentional violation and cooperation with authorities, on the other hand, intentional law breaking, combined with a refusal to cooperate in trying to make things right.

President Biden informed the relevant authorities as soon as he became aware of the breach, and even invited federal agents to search his home. By contrast, Trump claimed the documents were his, not the government’s, defied subpoenas and asserted he had declassified the documents through unobserved mental exertions.

Given the facts, it’s no surprise an ABC-Ipsos poll found that more than twice as many Americans believe Trump’s actions were more problematic than Biden’s. Forty-three percent believe Trump’s behavior was the “more serious concern,” while just 20 percent felt Biden’s behavior was more serious. Independents judge Trump’s actions as more serious than Biden’s by a margin of 43 percent to 14 percent.

In a country as evenly and intensely divided as ours, it is surprising that only 37 percent think Biden should be prosecuted, according to Quinnipiac. Compare that to the 50 percent who in August believed Trump should be prosecuted for his actions with the documents.

None of this is to suggest Americans are simply ignoring President Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. Clear majorities think it was inappropriate and serious.

But for now, at least, Americans perceive crucial differences between the ways in which Biden and Trump have dealt with their respective documents issues — and, as a result, Biden’s image has not been meaningfully damaged, while Trump’s has. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel. 

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