None of them has landed yet. That doesn’t mean Republicans won’t keep trying.
Over the weekend, there were new updates in the continuing effort to attach a single negative news story to the incoming Joe Biden administration. There was the announcement that his son, Hunter Biden, was being investigated for tax evasion. Following that story, a curious new angle of attack came from the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page. Joseph Epstein wrote a piece arguing that Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, should drop the Dr. from her title because she is not a medical doctor.
The condescending tone of the article, with its rejection of non-medical doctorate holders and its use of the term “kiddo,” drew immediate condemnation. But the Hunter Biden story was similarly laughed off by many. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York, “the charges against Hunter Biden do not remotely prove what Trump and his minions were claiming before the election… The [accusation in 2019 of impropriety] against Joe Biden remains just as false now as it was before the election.” The reception of these stories shows that while minor, ancillary scandals fueled Fox News and conservative media during the Barack Obama administration, they may have a tougher time working under President Biden.
Minor scandals worked as news fodder during the Obama administration for two reasons. To the general public, they were novel. It had been several years since the signature scandals of the Bush presidency, such as those associated with Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. Social media was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today. YouTube was in its infancy. The videos of Bush-era misdeeds did not travel quickly enough to sustain stories of hypocrisy. Americans mostly viewed Obama-era scandals with fresh eyes and believed many of them as a result. For instance, 43% of voters opposed Obama on the “Fast and Furious” scandal, which did not involve him directly, while an unfounded scandal regarding the IRS and conservative groups directly hurt Obama’s popularity according to a May 2013 poll.
In addition, the scandals associated with President Obama had a blatant racial overtone. Bill Clinton was, of course, beset by ridiculous scandals in much the same way that Obama was. But the Obama presidency attracted them like no other. With Obama, a certain subset of the public wanted to hate the president and would latch on to any story, no matter how minor, as an excuse. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Obama never committed a signature act that could rally both lawmakers and the opposing party’s base against him. But this lack of wrongdoing never stopped the minor scandal machine from producing new, lurid tales on an almost weekly basis during Obama’s eight years in office.
Biden’s minor scandals will not be nearly as damaging as Obama’s. He is succeeding a president who was more scandal-ridden than even George W. Bush. While Bush’s scandals were mostly confined to the first five years of his presidency, Trump seems to have a major scandal every week that has been memorialized and documented in detail on social media. Biden could never match the prolific bad behavior of the Trump administration even if he tried. In addition, it is an unfortunate fact that Biden will not elicit the same vitriol from his opponents that Obama did. Even though the country is more polarized than it was in the previous decade, Biden does not challenge ideas of racial hierarchy like Obama did. His presence in the White House will not end the creation of minor scandals, but it will prevent them from gaining ground.
The four years of Joe Biden’s first term will be characterized by paralysis and frustration in government. Democrats will most likely lose one of the January Senate runoffs. They will be unable to implement their platform or enact sweeping systemic reforms. But Biden will still have a practical agenda that has a chance of becoming reality. Weak-sauce scandals, like the title his wife uses, will do nothing to stop that agenda.