Democratic Panic Over Biden Not Dropping Out Gets Worse

President Biden Delivers Remarks On Supreme Court’s Immunity Ruling

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

A few dozen influential Democratic donors in Los Angeles settled into a plush gold-and-cream-accented living room in Holmby Hills for what was to be a cozy debate night, happy to be hosted by James Costos, a former HBO executive and Barack Obama’s ambassador to Spain, and his husband, the celebrity interior designer Michael Smith. They were joined by Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and a trio of governors who figured to be a big part of Democrats’ post-2024 future: Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker, and Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, each of whom gamely took the mic to greet the Angelenos before the main event. Then Joe Biden started speaking on the television and the room froze. The crowd fell silent as Biden muddled through his first few answers, then exploded into disbelieving murmurs as he continued to struggle against Donald Trump. At one point, Rob Reiner yelled above the agitated din — loud enough for the governors to hear — that Biden was going to lose the election.

Five days later, with Biden signaling that he has every intention of staying in the race, the alarm hasn’t dissipated; it has grown exponentially. Democratic senators and governors are furious with the president for not having called to reassure them and with his White House and campaign teams for insisting both his health and political prospects are in better shape than they appeared to 50 million viewers. Unable to reach Biden, lawmakers in Washington are begging Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, Jim Clyburn, and Nancy Pelosi to persuade Biden to leave the race or at least to get a message to Barack Obama, First Lady Jill Biden, or the president’s sister, Val. (Heavy-hitting donors are having similar conversations.) Many on Capitol Hill have turned to hoping the bottom falls out of their party’s own polling, which they believe would force an ultimatum on Biden: Step aside as the nominee, or let Democrats lose both the White House and Congress to Donald Trump and Republicans.

Governors have been discussing which of the president’s aides are most responsible for keeping Biden’s true condition from them and fuming about apparent family-and-friends attempts to deflect blame onto the debate-prep process. And longtime Washington operators have been strategizing about what argument they could make to Biden himself if given the chance. “What could you say to him if you loved him?” one asked me this week. “‘If you lose, your legacy will be Ruth Bader Ginsburg times 100? You’re the one who brought back fascism?’” None of these Democrats can figure out how to reach the man himself.

Yet in the White House and Wilmington campaign headquarters, Biden and his inner circle are operating in another political universe entirely. The president’s family set the tone for this defiant posture at Camp David over the weekend, exploring ways for him to reboot his campaign rather than drop out. In this universe, all of the Democratic naysayers are wrong: The debate was a bad moment, but one that will pass without fundamentally changing Biden’s chances at reelection. They are convinced that this is the universe in which voters live and that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling giving Trump a blank check to abuse a second term only reinforces the importance of stability at the top of the government, party, and ticket.

On Saturday, the campaign team blasted an email to supporters that dismissed concerns from critics (not elected Democrats, in this missive’s telling, but “your panicked aunt, your MAGA uncle, or some self-important Podcasters”) and suggested how to respond to “the bedwetting brigade” calling for Biden to drop out. (That would be “the best possible way for Donald Trump to win and us to lose,” since Biden has already won the primary and replacing him would be a messy process exposing Democratic rifts and producing a candidate with no money or campaign infrastructure.) The email then outlined the results of a new poll showing Biden losing to Trump by 3 points, but also seven other Democrats frequently named as possible candidates doing worse. (Vice-President Kamala Harris’s numbers were identical to Biden’s.) The campaign told its backers that it had raised $27 million since the debate and received three times as many job applications as usual.

This matched the campaign’s public appeal on Monday. A new ad featured dire footage of Trump from the debate and clips of a more vigorous looking Biden from his Raleigh rally the next day. Reading from a teleprompter, he was much smoother than he had been onstage in Atlanta. “I know, like millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down you get back up,” the ad concludes, with video of Biden clenching his fist. (It did not address his party’s central concern: the fact that he’d knocked himself down.)

The same day, Biden’s political brain trust found what it had gone looking for: evidence that the debate’s actual effects had not been as bad as it seemed. Campaign pollster Geoff Garin internally circulated a memo outlining the findings of a poll he’d run in the seven most important battleground states over the weekend that showed the race largely unchanged, though with Trump still narrowly leading. Most importantly, though, the memo underscored that “a large majority of Biden 2020 voters who had a negative reaction to his debate performance are still voting for him.” These numbers were not reassuring in a race likely to be decided on the margins — only three-quarters still supported Biden in a head-to-head, and fewer in a race with third-party candidates included — but half of those who’d abandoned Biden said they might still return.

It’s data like this that the broader party is watching closely, too. Among elected officials and donors desperate to see Biden step aside, there is a near-consensus that “nothing happens if the polls don’t crack,” in one donor’s words — that Biden won’t be persuaded to bow out until and unless surveys show a clear drop in support for him and for Democrats in House and Senate races. That, they think, might spur party leaders like Schumer and Jeffries to make an appeal to Biden to retire for his own good and the good of the party’s chances up and down the ballot. Yet on a private call between the campaign and donors on Monday night, top officials shrugged off a question about what would happen if they did see a serious polling drop. The campaign’s lead pollster, Molly Murphy, said that their internal numbers weren’t indicating that would happen: “Voters saw the debate, they took it in, and didn’t change their minds.”

Biden took in the initial numbers over the weekend, and despite his party’s freakout, he appeared to dig in further. “The chip on his shoulder and the capacity for feeling like he’s underestimated is bigger than anyone you’ve ever met in your life,” said one Democrat who’s known Biden for three decades. Some around him have interpreted calls for his exit to be part of a fundamental misunderstanding of politics by fellow Democrats and the media, populated by out of touch Ivy Leaguers. No entity is the focus of as much Biden eye-rolling as the New York Times’ editorial board, one of the most prominent voices calling for his voluntary ouster. He remembers well how the board endorsed against him in 2020’s Democratic primary, and how the Times’ elevator operator seemed to understand his pitch to regular voters far better than the journalists. When that editorial was published, people around Biden immediately understood that it would harden his wish to stay in. On the donor call, deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks seemed to channel his boss’s belief that the Washington press has simply misunderstood him once again: “The media has spent a ton of time blowing this out of proportion.”

This argument didn’t sit well with all the donors on the call, many of whom expressed frustration that they couldn’t ask live questions and that only pre-selected ones were answered. (“It’s embarrassing,” said one. “What’s the point if we can’t ask questions?” wondered another.) Nor has it calmed Democrats concerned about their own reelections in addition to Trump’s return. Many expect polling to reveal a serious polling dip for Biden in the coming week and have begun asking why Biden himself hasn’t called lawmakers if he’s so sure everything will be fine. Instead, that’s been left up to a handful of his top staffers and allies. Senator Chris Coons and former congressman Cedric Richmond have been making the rounds among lawmakers, as have campaign chairman Jen O’Malley Dillon and senior adviser Anita Dunn among elected officials and donor and White House political director Emmy Ruiz with allied outside groups.

For now, few big-name Democratic lawmakers have been willing to publicly criticize Biden with the exceptions of senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Peter Welch of Vermont. (Joe Manchin was reportedly talked off the ledge by Schumer.) On Tuesday, Texan congressman Lloyd Doggett became the first to call for Biden’s exit outright, but he stood alone for the time being, largely as others feared such calls wouldn’t work and would only harm Biden if he continues running. (This doesn’t necessarily extend to retired officials; former Iowa senator Tom Harkin called the debate “a disaster from which Biden cannot recover” and urged incumbent senators to pressure him to end his campaign.) Some swing-state Democrats, fearing that whoever took over for Biden would do worse, have begun urging his staff to get him back on the trail, behind a teleprompter, as soon as possible to prove that the debate was a fluke and that the true Biden is the one who showed some fight in North Carolina.

On Monday night, one of the party’s most engaged tycoons turned fundraisers rang with some news: Now the donors were fighting. A growing collection of them was circulating a chain email that gamed out a scenario in which the nomination was thrown open and a range of non-Biden contenders declared for a productive and well-organized weekslong sprint of a race for the spot atop the ticket. The caller was frustrated with Biden personally and furious with his team for letting the president out on the debate stage in that condition but didn’t find this kind of fantasy politics helpful: Biden is neatly forced out and an ad hoc open replacement process just goes off nicely with no intraparty Armageddon? Nice try. “The number of people who are coming up with scenarios that are premised on a world that ended in the 1950s …” he complained, his voice betraying a mix of exasperation and resignation. “Well, that doesn’t exist anymore, where there are just a few people in a room making decisions.”

Among many of the most wired-in donor types, there’s a crystalizing understanding that the only chance now to replace Biden is to persuade him directly to step aside and name a successor, likely Harris. This certainty isn’t just about Biden’s mind-set, it’s also about the party’s process for certifying the nominee and getting that person on state ballots. “I’m not saying what donors or members of Congress are saying doesn’t matter, I’m not trying to downplay their concerns or disagree with their opinions, but the delegates have been selected,” said Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chair and longtime committee member. Biden could withdraw, of course. But the process for formally getting him on ballots has already been in motion for months, and he’s in charge of it now, not some mysterious collection of powerbrokers. “Joe Biden is the only one in the driver’s seat. He may have passengers who appear to know how to grab control of the wheel, but no,” said Brazile. “He is the only one driving.”

Biden is well aware of this. And though he was reportedly upset at his own performance immediately after the debate, he opted not to say a word about it at all the following evening during his first post-fiasco fundraiser with LGBTQ donors and Elton John in the city. That task fell instead initially to the First Lady, who pointed to Biden’s North Carolina rally as evidence he would be fine on the trail. She reported to her own high-paying audience in the Village that after the debate, she’d told her husband they wouldn’t “let 90 minutes define the four years that you’ve been president.”

Yet by Saturday afternoon, as the party’s agita intensified, Biden was trying to calm nerves directly himself. In East Hampton, he took a shot at convincing his backers that his team’s initial polling numbers were actually fine, not apocalyptic. “I understand the concern about the debate, I get it. I didn’t have a great night,” he said, but he had moved undecided voters to his column, unlike Trump. “The point is I didn’t have a great night, but neither did Trump,” he continued. He insisted that he “would not be running again if I didn’t believe with all my heart and soul that I can do this job,” before repeating his North Carolina lines about being a bit stiffer and older but being morally upright and resilient. It did little to immediately quash any concerns, and by that evening, he had added another new twist intended to pacify his funders, which most found equally unconvincing and some found insulting.

At Governor Phil Murphy’s house in Red Bank, New Jersey — where Biden raised $3.7 million in two hours — he compared himself to Obama in 2012:  “He had the same thing the first debate.” Of course, Obama came across as unamused against Mitt Romney, as many of Biden’s donors remember well, not irreversibly unfit for the job.  Biden then pivoted away from himself: “In fact, the big takeaway are Trump’s lies.” The apparent posture is that he’s just navigating another news cycle, even if it’s a particularly vicious one — and that he can get through it like he has in the past: by refocusing attention on his unacceptable opponent.

“The public’s attention is really short, people are going to move on from this within a week,” predicted Evan Bayh, the former Indiana senator and governor. Plus, he said, “the electorate is so closely divided, what we’re really talking about in my opinion are three states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — and you’re talking about a total maybe ten counties in those states, maybe 400 thousand people.” Maybe that was easy for Bayh to say. He’d been in remote Alaska on a fishing trip with his son during the debate and hadn’t seen it, only read the coverage. But one prominent swing-state Democrat who had been out door-knocking over the weekend, targeting persuadable voters, found a surprising dynamic. “There is a slice of the electorate that is high-information Democrats that cannot imagine what it’s like to be a low-information voters,” he said. “For low-information voters, Biden was not surprising in the debate because it’s the same guy they’ve seen in viral TikToks.” As a result, these people’s view of Biden hadn’t shifted, but clips of Trump — including when he refused to promise to accept the next election results — had dented his image.

The greatest change Biden has allowed since the debate was tactical and easy to miss for anyone who doesn’t watch his every move: Directingly attacking Trump from the White House, as opposed to at a campaign event on Monday night. Responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling that morning, he pursued an unusually explicit political point, just when he knew his entire party was watching closely, terrified that he would show any frailty. He recalled Trump’s role in January 6 and said the fact Trump would now likely avoid a preelection trial is “a terrible disservice to the people in this nation.” Now, he added, “the American people must decide if they want to entrust the president, once again, the presidency, to Donald Trump, now knowing that he will be more emboldened to do whatever he pleases, whatever he wants to do.”

And then he did something else uncharacteristic: He ignored his usual urge to answer the press corps’ shouted questions off the cuff, a practice that often lands him in hot water as he speaks candidly. This time, instead, he turned from the camera and walked slowly away as a reporter yelled, “Mr. President, will you drop out of the race?”

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