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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ethical concerns are casting a shadow over President Joe Biden as he seeks reelection amid investigations into his son Hunter and an impeachment inquiry, with a poll showing that 35% of U.S. adults believe the president himself has done something illegal.
An additional 33% say they think the Democratic president behaved unethically, but not illegally. And 30% say Joe Biden did nothing wrong, according to the poll. The results of the survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reflect both a vast political divide and skepticism about the morality of government leaders.
House Republicans have launched an impeachment inquiry into Biden, seeking to tie the president to the foreign business dealings of his 53-year-old son. Hunter Biden is facing a separate criminal indictment by a special counsel after a plea deal in a tax and gun case fell apart.
Republicans have been investigating Hunter Biden for years, since his father was vice president. While questions have arisen about the ethics surrounding the Biden family’s international business, no evidence has emerged so far to prove that Joe Biden, in his current or previous office, abused his role or accepted bribes.
The survey's findings point toward a U.S. political system riven with cynicism and suspicion. Having fractured along partisan lines, the public largely appears to judge Joe Biden as much based on his party affiliation as the known facts.
Roughly two-thirds of Republicans say they think Joe Biden is guilty of crimes pertaining to his son, but only 8% of Democrats and 38% of independents agree. About an additional third in each party say they think Joe Biden at least did something unethical. A solid majority of Democrats (58%) maintain that the president did nothing wrong.
Interviews with poll respondents tapped into a deeper sense of rot within the federal government. Several said the political class as a whole was beset by greed and corruption, causing politicians to selfishly neglect the country's needs. That perspective is at odds with Biden's message of optimism about a government that is spurring investments in infrastructure, new factories and renewable energy sources.
Asked if the president had profited off his son's work abroad, Idaho resident Hank Gardiner said the evidence presented so far proved Joe Biden had.
“Absolutely. I don’t think you have to be intelligent to see that,” said Gardiner, 42, a Pocatello contractor who formerly worked in law enforcement. Gardiner, who voted to reelect Republican Donald Trump as president in 2020, said he feels the country is headed in the wrong direction because “our government's totally corrupt.”
Joe Biden has said only that he loves and supports his son, whose drug addiction has formed the basis of a gun charge against him. Hunter Biden was silent for years as Republican attacks swirled, but has now gone on the offensive. He is suing operatives who obtained and spread his personal data. That data has been used in the GOP probes, including embarrassing images that were shown in House committee hearings.
The president has said little in an effort to avoid any appearance that he is meddling in the Justice Department probe. But it hasn't been taken that way by some voters, who see the mere existence of the investigation as proof of their own beliefs that politicians are instinctively underhanded.
With their investigation, GOP lawmakers are seeking in part to distract from the increasing legal peril of GOP front-runner Trump, who is facing four criminal cases, including a federal indictment accusing him of working to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol. Trump continues to claim — wrongly — that the election was stolen, even in the face of the mounting charges against him.
Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress instead say that Joe Biden and his family are getting a sweetheart deal from prosecutors, while Trump has been hung out to dry by an overly aggressive justice system that does not want to see him as president again.
Some voters see Joe Biden acting as any parent would with his son, and the GOP-led investigation into his business dealings as excessive.
“We’ve spent too much time on this and wasted money,” said David Parrott, 57, a retired construction worker from Tennessee who voted for Trump in 2020. “If a father can take care of his son, he’s going to do it. He acted like a father should act.”
But Parrott does not see Joe Biden as being more ethical than Trump; he sees corruption as being endemic to the government.
“Oh, man," he said. "I don’t think either one of them is very ethical at all. This country is all about the money. That’s all either one of them care about: the money.”
Americans are slightly more likely to disapprove (39%) than approve (33%) of the House impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden. About one-quarter say that they neither approve nor disapprove. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) approve of the inquiry, but just 28% of independents and 7% of Democrats agree.
Terry Kilgore, a 75-year-old lawyer in Westlake, Ohio, said that Biden has behaved ethically by deferring to the Justice Department. He sees Republican lawmakers as thirsty for power with their impeachment efforts. The lone safety valve might be the Democratic majority in the Senate to block a conviction, said Kilgore, who voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
Referring to GOP senators, Kilgore added that if they had their way, "if they controlled the Senate, what would they do? You know. They would impeach him. Just because they had the manpower to do it.”
An AP-NORC poll conducted in October 2019 — after the House opened the first of two impeachment inquiries into Trump — found that 47% of U.S. adults said they approved of the inquiry, while 38% disapproved. At the time, 38% of Americans said Trump acted illegally in his interactions with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and an additional 29% said he acted unethically. The former president was ultimately impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
The same 2019 AP-NORC poll found that 69% of Americans said it was inappropriate for Hunter Biden to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while Joe Biden was vice president.
In general, Democrats appear to enjoy a relative edge on ethics over Republicans, though many people don't see that as a strong suit for either party.
More U.S. adults say they trust the Democrats (28%) over the Republicans (19%) to handle corruption in government. Even more — about 4 in 10 — trust neither party while 14% trust both sides equally. Most Democrats (56%) have more faith in their party than Republicans to handle corruption, while 42% of Republicans trust their own party over Democrats. About 6 in 10 independents trust neither Republicans nor Democrats to address government corruption.
The impeachment inquiry seems to have had little impact on Biden’s overall job approval.
About 4 in 10 approve of how Joe Biden is handling the presidency, while 61% disapprove. Those approval figures have stayed consistently low over the past two years as the country endured a dose of high inflation while the economy recovered from the pandemic. But many also express worries about the 80-year-old Biden's abilities given his age.
“I'm a little concerned about his competency given some of the speeches he’s given,” said Shae Rouzan, 34, an administrative assistant from Carson, California. “I don’t think he’s healthy enough or mentally competent enough to fully realize the duties of the presidential office.”
Still, Rouzan, who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, said she would do so again in 2024 given the possible alternatives.
Biden earns relatively high marks on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic (52% approve, 47% disapprove).
But just 32% support Joe Biden's handling of the economy, with 67% disapproving. Only 31% back his management of the federal budget. And 41% support his handling of student debt, which involved Biden forgiving smaller sums than promised after the Supreme Court rejected his authority to write off $400 billion in loans.
Despite the low marks, voters such as Oakley Graham said Joe Biden displayed his values by going to the picket lines of striking autoworkers in Michigan.
“He stands with workers,” said Graham, 30, a homemaker from Greenwood, Missouri, who voted for Joe Biden in 2020. “Not standing with corporations shows that he does care about the American people and individual Americans’ lives.”
The poll of 1,163 adults was conducted Oct. 5-9, 2023, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, designed to represent the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.