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Crunch Time

These Next Six Months Could Define the Biden Presidency

On five fronts—yes, starting with Docugate, which has shifted the White House from offense to defense—Joe Biden is facing major challenges.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As the new year dawned, Joe Biden had something resembling wind at his back. Inflation was slowing. Positive feelings among Democrats about the midterms were soaring. Lots of satisfaction about the accomplishments of his first two years was on hand. And the polling was ticking up, ever so slightly. All good.

I took a whiff of the prevailing zeitgeist and wrote a column, on Monday, January 9, headlined “Hell Yes, Joe Biden Should Run.” Well, folks … my timing was about as good as that guy at Decca Records who announced in 1963 that guitar groups were on the way out. That very day, reporters at CBS News were about to post the first story breaking the news about classified documents being found at a Biden office.

Those reports continue to dribble out. Six more classified documents were found at Biden’s home over the weekend. It should be noted that Biden’s lawyers invited the FBI to conduct this search. The way he and his inner circle have behaved during this period has been night-and-day different from Donald Trump when he faced a similar situation.

But while we make clear that there is zero moral equivalence between the two cases, any honest assessment of the politics of the situation has to concede that it’s messy. The documents brouhaha has delayed Biden’s reelection announcement, and the appointment of a special prosecutor who can request essentially endless budgets and time extensions to turn over just one more rock has a lot of Democrats worried about where this might be headed.

This isn’t the only headwind blowing in Biden’s direction. These next few months are going to be challenging on five different fronts. Each area is fraught with peril; each also represents opportunities for redemption or exoneration. Let’s go through them.

1. The documents. I’m still operating from the assumption that this was all just a sloppy mistake. Cataloging 36 years’ worth of Senate records and eight years’ of vice presidential records is a prodigious undertaking. It’s easy to believe that this comparatively small number of papers got misfiled.

But Republicans are going to make hay of this, and it’s not clear how the media stack the bales. This could balloon into the “But her emails!” of 2024. So far, the press has been fairly good at explaining why the Biden and Trump cases are different; some polls show that many voters get this. But it’s the nature of the media to conflate these kinds of things. There was a sentence in Sunday’s New York Times piece about the weekend search that read: “The search underscored the seriousness of the investigation into Mr. Biden’s handling of documents and, while not a surprise raid, in some ways resembled the extensive search of former President Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last summer.” Right. There was no subpoena, and an invitation to the FBI rather than resistance to it. Aside from that, they were the same!

Even so, it’s possible that this can still be one of those things that no one is thinking about next year. That will depend on two factors: First, that Biden had no knowledge of this, and it genuinely was the work of aides; second, that the content of the classified material was relatively benign, somewhere in the “notes to prep veep for phone call with foreign minister of French Guiana” zone. We’ll find out, and I hope we find out fast.

2. Debt limit. This showdown looms in June. It’s hard right now to see how the White House can emerge a clear winner here. Even if the House Republicans overplay their hand and push for unpopular entitlement cuts and fail to win them, Biden will probably still end up having to agree to large cuts to the domestic discretionary budget (about $750 billion out of an overall budget of more than $6 trillion) that will be unpopular with his party’s base. And if, God forbid, the Republicans do drink the crazy juice and force the country into default, the public will blame them, but the economy will suffer, and when the economy suffers, the president does as well.

It may be a longshot, but if the White House can get a handful of less extreme House Republicans to agree with all Democrats on a responsible package, then it’s possible Biden can come out of this more or less unscathed. Now is the time to study up on what a “discharge petition” is: That knowledge may serve you well this summer. Mitch McConnell, by the way, has sent signs that he’s willing to play ball on the Senate side.

3. The Economy. Inflation is still high, but it is slowing, so it may not be as dominant an economic issue this year as it was last year. There’s a new worry, however: the possibility of a recession in 2023. The recent round of tech layoffs doesn’t seem to bode well. If you read around on the topic, you’ll quickly see that nearly everyone is predicting some sort of recession this year. The Conference Board, which surveys Fortune 500 companies, expects a brief and mild recession. Others aren’t so sure, especially about the “brief” part. Some see a 1969-style recession, which again wasn’t terribly painful but did last almost a year.

A long recession, lasting into 2024, would obviously be seriously bad news politically—for any Democratic candidate but for the incumbent president especially. More jobs were created under Biden in his first two years (10.5 million) than under presidency in modern history. But if voters see a nation limping from inflation to recession as the primary season starts, that may create a narrative that could prove awfully hard to dislodge.

4. Ukraine. Those first three challenges are already a lot. But the Ukraine crisis could be the worst of all. The fighting quieted down a bit (war-criminal attacks on apartment buildings miles from the front notwithstanding) over the winter but will pick again in the spring. Most close observers see a drawn-out stalemate. That would likely mean one of two things for the United States. On one hand, we get sucked into a deeper commitment that could lead inexorably to direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia (in a word: war, which no one wants). On the other hand, the GOP’s House majority forces a pullback in aid, and we are forced to sit and watch one of the world’s worst authoritarians overrun and erase a sovereign nation.

And don’t sit around hoping Putin will be deposed any time soon. Should that happen, it’s almost certainly going to be at the hands of those to his right, who think he hasn’t prosecuted the war harshly enough. It’s pretty hard to imagine that there are people who think Vladimir Putin is a squish, but they exist. Russia’s liberals have mostly left the country.

A Ukrainian victory, or a settlement that forces Putin to withdraw considerably, would be a great outcome for Biden and would reaffirm his instincts from the beginning of the conflict. But if Putin needs to prolong this conflict, he will, in the hopes that the much larger Russia might, at some point, simply outlast the smaller nation. That’s not exactly how it worked out in Afghanistan, but rulers like Putin are notorious for not learning such lessons.

5. Democratic Party unity. So far, as I observed in that January 9 column, the Biden team has done a great job of holding the Democratic Party together. But there are reasons to worry that that could change.

Reason number one is Ron Klain’s impending departure. Klain is a rare figure in Democratic politics. He’s trusted by both the centrists and the progressives and has had lines of communication to both throughout the first two years of the Biden presidency. I don’t see anyone else in the Biden inner circle who has that kind of relationship with the party’s left. Jeff Zients, who’ll replace Klain, certainly doesn’t. He has a corporate background, and in the Obama administration his main mandate was deficit reduction at a time when Obama was being pressured to prioritize that issue. There may be good reasons for naming Zients to the role. One theory is that he might be able to shore up support in the business world for Biden’s side of the argument on the debt ceiling fight. But the fact is that he has few of the political relationships Klain has. Keep an eye on what Elizabeth Warren has to say about this appointment, as well as Pramila Jayapal.

On any of the above four issues, Klain had the skills to help Biden keep the party united when bad news hit. But now, with people getting nervous about the impact of the documents story, and with many Democrats already worried about Biden’s age and health, I’m guessing that we’re going to start seeing some fissures, and there won’t be anyone in the White House who can patch them over.

Does all this mean I’ve changed my mind about Biden running? No: He has a good record, and there’s still reason to worry about an acrimonious primary if he bows out. Besides, saying Biden shouldn’t run is like saying the sun shouldn’t rise: Barring some horrible development on the documents front, he’s running. But the documents story has changed the complexion of a reelection campaign considerably—and that’s even if it does end up amounting to nothing. The wind that was at his back is now blowing, if not yet ferociously, into his face.