Joe Biden’s brand is being tested like never before

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s brand as a family-oriented public servant has been a signature political asset that for more than 50 years has helped him win the argument that, when judged against “the alternative” rather than “the Almighty,” he stacks up pretty well.

He’s never lost to a general-election opponent in a political career that’s taken him from Delaware’s New Castle County Council to the Oval Office.

But the burnish on Biden’s brand is being tested like never before, ahead of a close 2024 election. Some of the president’s Democratic allies are worried about potential fallout from a confluence of family drama that’s spilled into public view and from Republican attacks that cut at the bedrock of Biden’s longtime political appeal.

The GOP-led House is investigating the extent of Biden’s role in helping his son Hunter Biden earn millions of dollars from foreign business interests during his time as vice president.

Republicans also say Biden’s Justice Department tried to give Hunter Biden a “sweetheart” plea deal on federal tax and firearm possession charges — a deal that fell apart last month after a judge questioned its terms. At the same time, a federal special counsel is investigating Biden’s handling of classified documents following his two terms as vice president.

In a matter of a much more personal nature, Biden recently acknowledged for the first time that he has a seventh grandchild — Navy Joan Roberts, the 4-year-old daughter of Hunter Biden, who wrote in a memoir that he doesn’t remember his “encounter” with her mother.

“The recent revelations with Hunter Biden really are in conflict with the current perception of his image of being squeaky clean,” Mike Noble, the CEO of the nonpartisan Noble Predictive Insights and a preeminent pollster in the Southwest, said of the president.

Noble said that in his firm’s trackers — including in the key 2024 states of Arizona and Nevada — Biden’s image regularly tests better than his job approval.

“I think this potentially impacts his image,” he said of the various criticisms of Biden and his family.

Democrats who are concerned about the possible political damage to Biden’s reputation are more reticent, and they privately note that this GOP narrative is different from criticism of the president’s age — 80 — or his handling of the economy because it’s so central to the type of leadership he’s offering voters.

“There’s a reason why his numbers are the way they are,” said one Democratic strategist, referring to the president’s low approval rating among Americans. Like other Democrats, the strategist requested anonymity to avoid retribution from fellow partisans.

“It’s not just the economy,” the strategist said of possible reasons behind Biden’s low job approval. “It’s not because people are just concerned about inflation. It’s not just because people are concerned about his age. His brand has been damaged by him and those around him.”

Nodding to the fear Democrats have of being blamed for weakening their own candidate — or incurring his wrath — the strategist emphatically declined to put his name to his remarks: “On the record? F— no! Are you crazy?” he said.

In June, an NBC News poll found that 48% of those surveyed held a negative view of the president and 39% had a positive view. Another 12% were neutral.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center poll showed 65% of Americans feared Republicans would spend too much time in Congress talking about Hunter Biden and not enough on kitchen table issues.

Still, Republicans plan to spend the next 15 months trying to diminish Biden’s powerful political asset as much as possible.

On Monday, the political action committee of former President Donald Trump — the current front-runner for the Republican nomination — released a new ad that casts the president as dishonest about his role in Hunter Biden’s lucrative foreign business dealings. The PAC, Make America Great Again, is spending $1.9 million on the ad, according to a spokesperson.

Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said recent data collected by Campaign Nucleus, a platform that measures public opinion, show at least a glimmer of weakness where Biden has long found strength. Parscale, a partner in the firm that runs Campaign Nucleus, said while Biden’s personal approval is at 43%, positive sentiment about issues involving his family is lower — at 40%.

“This net negative sentiment of 3% is a notable drag on his overall appeal,” Parscale said.

In the 2024 election, Biden will have to rely on voters to look past any discomfort with the nicks in his narrative when they compare him to the alternative — which current polling shows is likely to be Trump, who has been indicted three times and impeached twice.

Though Biden and Trump are effectively tied in recent national polling, Democrats say they are confident Biden’s record — both in terms of policies and character — stands up much better to scrutiny than Trump’s.

“Republicans have spent four years and millions of dollars spreading lies about President Biden and his family because it’s easier than talking about their deeply unpopular and extreme agenda,” said Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

“It hasn’t worked, and it never will, because Americans know that Joe Biden is a fundamentally decent person who loves his family and whose devotion to his country has made him one of the most effective presidents in a generation,” Moussa said.

Yet there is some concern within the party that the Hunter Biden storylines are creating a distraction from Trump’s character and the substantive policy issues the president’s team believes will ultimately decide the election.

Felisia Martin, vice chair of the state Democratic Party in electoral battleground Wisconsin, said there is growing frustration among Democrats in her state about the focus on Hunter Biden over issues like inflation.

“We voted for Joe Biden to be president of the United States, not Hunter Biden,” said Martin, who also is a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. “Hunter Biden doesn’t have a position in the Biden-Harris administration, therefore, I’m not concerned unless there is proof that the president has something to do with some nefarious dealings.”

Republicans, and news organizations, have not found evidence that Biden received money from any of Hunter Biden’s business relationships.

In 2019, Joe Biden wrote a post on X — then called Twitter — claiming, “I’ve never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.”

But late last month, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre shifted that stance amid revelations that House Republicans had uncovered evidence of Hunter Biden talking to his father while meeting with business associates.

“The president,” Pierre said, as she recalibrated the White House response to questions about whether the two Bidens had spoken about business ventures, “was never in business with his son.”

Last week, Devon Archer, who was one of Hunter Biden’s business partners, testified in a closed session before the House Oversight Committee about the importance of the Biden “brand” — specifically Hunter Biden’s proximity to his father — in securing and maintaining business, according to a publicly released transcript of his meeting with House investigators.

Indeed, the power of the Biden name likely helped Hunter Biden at nearly every turn of his career: from consulting for MBNA, a Delaware-based bank whose employees were a major source of campaign money for the elder Biden, and lobbying Congress while his father was a senator; to winning an appointment to Amtrak’s board from President George W. Bush and earning large sums from foreign business dealings when his father was vice president.

Archer recounted two dinners with Hunter Biden’s foreign associates that Joe Biden attended at a Washington, D.C., restaurant when he was vice president. The dinners included a Russian real estate magnate and a top executive at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that hired Hunter Biden as a consultant.

Archer testified that he is unaware of any official U.S. government action taken on behalf of Burisma. In general, he testified, the younger Biden “would sometimes make it apparent that he spoke to his dad” or put his father on speaker phone when interacting with investors and business contacts.

The conversations were casual, according to Archer’s testimony, but gave the impression of closeness between father and son. Archer also said he had no knowledge of wrongdoing by the president.

Democrats say there’s no comparison between Trump and Biden when it comes to self-dealing — and that they hope that is obvious to the electorate.

Trump was indicted by special counsel Jack Smith on various charges related to his alleged attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election and wrongfully retaining classified documents after leaving office. He was also indicted by the Manhattan district attorney on charges of falsifying business records. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The special counsel investigating Biden’s handling of classified documents after his time as vice president has not announced any conclusion to the probe, but one is expected in the coming months. Biden has said he unwittingly possessed classified documents after leaving the vice presidency.

Whether the “family man” brand issue becomes a problem for Biden in the 2024 campaign, there may be little he can do at this point to affect it, in the view of some of his allies. And Biden allies hope voters will see his decisions as him being a caring father and won’t penalize him for that.

“What is he supposed to do, cut his son off because he wants to be president?” said former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill. “You don’t stop being a dad because you want to be vice president or president.”

Democrats close to Biden said Republicans will be hard-pressed to tear down a brand that has been built over decades. Biden’s reputation for empathy also is one reason that Democrats are reluctant to publicly criticize his handling of his relationship with Hunter Biden. In many cases, that empathy is something they’ve experienced themselves.

Bill Houlihan, a Democratic strategist and longtime aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recalled how years ago when he told Biden that his mother was turning 90, Biden told Houlihan to get his mother on the phone and then wished her a happy birthday.

“My mom told that story until she died,” Houlihan said. “You don’t do that to make a name for yourself; you do that because you love people.”

Yet in some ways, the most prominent aspect of Joe Biden’s political brand — that he’s a family man — has recently taken the biggest hit.

Biden has held Hunter Biden — his only surviving son and a recovering drug addict — so publicly close that some Democrats have privately raised concerns that doing so hurts him politically. Yet it wasn’t until last month, amid Republican criticism and some friendly admonishments, that Biden acknowledged he has a seventh grandchild.

The president was waiting until after Hunter Biden resolved his legal disputes with Navy’s mother, Lunden Roberts, before opening his arms to his granddaughter, according to people close to him.

That legal settlement, however, reportedly precludes Navy from using the Biden family name.

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