Biden’s fate is on the line in the most critical days of his 50-year political career

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  The high-stakes week ahead is critical to whether President Joe Biden’s defiance will save his reelection bid or whether Democrats who question his capacity to serve a second term will succeed in pressuring him to step aside.

While only a handful of House Democrats have publicly called for the president to end his campaign, there is deep disquiet inside the party at the possibility that Biden, who swept Donald Trump out of the White House four years ago, could ruin his legacy and throw the country into uncharted political territory by failing to deter voters from sending his rival back in the Oval Office after November’s election.

Democratic anxiety reverberated through a call that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries hosted for his conference Sunday afternoon. Some members said Biden should go, and there’s a consensus among dozens of party lawmakers that he needs to step aside, sources told CNN. But a meeting that Sen. Mark Warner planned for Monday to consider the president’s future is now scrapped, and the Virginia Democrat has not decided whether he thinks Biden should step aside, a source said.

Several key party heavyweights said on Sunday morning news shows that the president needs to do far more to ease skepticism among voters. “I think this week is going to be really critical for him to answer those remaining questions,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The president nevertheless insisted in a campaign swing through battleground Pennsylvania on Sunday that “I’m up for the job!”

Biden reinforced his refusal to cede the Democratic nomination he earned through a largely unopposed primary run in a high-stakes interview with ABC News on Friday, warning only the “Lord Almighty” could compel him to end his campaign. But the interview only reinforced Democrats’ panic that followed his devastating debate performance last month over his chances of beating Republican presumptive nominee Trump. The interview also raised further questions over Biden’s health as he seeks a new term that would end when he is 86 and over whether he understands the gravity of his political plight as he trails Trump in polls.

The turmoil surrounding Biden’s future is creating a grim mood inside the White House, CNN’s MJ Lee reported. West Wing staffers are rattled by the president’s debate performance and the coverage of the president’s subsequent struggles, although support for his reelection bid remains strong in the building.

A moment of soul-searching for the Democratic Party

Among the key questions now is whether a critical mass of lawmakers will unite to try to convince the president to stand aside.

• If that happens, would senior party leaders be willing to go to the president and argue that his position is unsustainable?
• And even if they did, would Biden – who has earned the votes of millions of Democrats to secure the nomination and who maintains he is fully fit to serve a new term – agree to cede his campaign?
• If the president remained obdurate at this point, Democrats would face a decision on whether to go public about their views, and many in critical states and districts would have to consider distancing themselves from their own party’s presidential nominee to try to save themselves in November.

There is an almost surreal quality to the frenzied political debate as Biden digs in. It would be an extraordinary twist to an already remarkable year in which Republicans will nominate a convicted felon and twice-impeached former president if Democrats decline at the last minute to nominate a sitting president, who most believe has had a successful term, over concerns that he can’t win.

Passing on Biden would also mark a humiliating coda to a political career that has spanned half a century, and the president would likely regard himself as the victim of scathing betrayal.

If Democrats do push him aside, they’d create a high-risk scenario unprecedented in modern history. They’d have to decide whether to rally around Vice President Kamala Harris – which has already begun in some quarters – or whether to stage a lightning process to pick an unvetted neophyte new nominee. There would be no guarantee that a new standard-bearer would do better than Biden, who has already beaten Trump once. But the fact many want to try shows the intensity of alarm in the party and the potency of the image of an aged and sometimes incoherent president blazed on the minds of 50 million television viewers at the CNN debate in Atlanta.

In a worrying sign for Biden, even senior party figures who are normally supportive and laud the achievements of his term argue that he must do far more to convince voters that he is up to the demands of the presidency.

“There’s no doubt that the president’s performance at the debate has raised questions for voters, not questions about his character or his decency or who he cares about or who he fights for, but questions as to whether this is still the old Joe Biden,” Murphy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He told Dana Bash that the president needed to get out and “do a town hall, that he do a press conference, (to) show the country that he is still the old Joe Biden.”

Rep. Adam Schiff also raised concerns. Like Murphy, Schiff poured praise on Biden’s achievements and lacerated Trump. But he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the debate performance raised concerns among voters about whether Biden had the capacity to win “an existential race.” Given that Trump is a convicted criminal, the California Democrat said that the election shouldn’t be close and that the president’s age is the only reason it is. “He should seek out people with some distance and objectivity. He should seek pollsters who are not his own pollsters. He should take a moment to make the best-informed judgment. And if the judgment is run, then run hard and beat that SOB.”

The comments of the two senior Democrats underscore the disconnect in the party. While there is alarm among many on Capitol Hill and a desire for the president to do far more in unscripted situations to prove his fitness, Biden himself has already ruled out ending his reelection bid. He refused to answer a question in the ABC News interview about what he would do if leaders such as Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told him that he could harm Democrats in Congress if he stayed in the race. “I’m not going to answer that question. It’s not going to happen,” Biden said.

But the president is getting strong support from his allies in the Congressional Black Caucus. Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, a former chair of the CBC, said Democrats “shouldn’t be going rogue against our own president.” And voters at the Essence Festival in New Orleans voiced confidence in Biden and resisted calls for him to end his campaign, CNN’s Ebony Davis and Eva McKend reported.

The ABC News interview aside, the president is not throwing himself into the intense scrutiny of repeated and spontaneous political events that even many of his supporters want to see. On Sunday, the president gave a speech in a Black church in Philadelphia and addressed campaign workers in a short, off-the-cuff speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He did spend considerable time working a rope line in stifling heat. And later this week, he’s expected to hold a news conference at the NATO summit he’s hosting in Washington, which will be another critical barometer of his faculties.

But many Democrats want him to do more amid fears that his position is so precarious that he will not only lose the White House but that he could also drag down his party, allowing Republicans to win back the House and retain the Senate. With the Supreme Court cementing an era of ultra-conservative jurisprudence, many Democrats are openly scared of the consequences of a second, unrestrained Trump presidency.

House Democrats on Sunday vented their frustration about Biden’s troubles and the impact they could have on winning back the House, a possibility that many members had been optimistic about until the debate. “It was pretty brutal,” a senior Democratic aide told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation among House leaders.

No decisions about demands for a White House meeting or about the possibility of sending a letter to Biden are expected to be made before the full Democratic caucus meets Tuesday, aides said. A source who was on the Sunday call told CNN’s MJ Lee that Jeffries has not taken a position on what should happen. But the Tuesday meeting looms as a fateful moment for the president.

Concern about Biden’s ability to perform on the campaign trail and the long-term implications of the debate remain deep, despite the legacy of a first term in which his legislative record matches or surpasses that of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. Rep. Gerry Connolly, for instance, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday that he believed what happened was more than “a bad night, and that’s why that image is so indelible on so many minds.” The Virginia Democrat said that while Biden’s performance in the ABC News interview was largely good, there were some troubling aspects. “Invoking God Almighty as the only intervention that is going to dissuade him from going forward, I hope Joe Biden didn’t really mean that,” Connolly said.

Biden hits the trail

Biden sought to squash speculation about his future by seeking to project a picture of vigor on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, a state that he must keep in his column in November to keep his hopes of victory alive. The president reflected on faith and the trials it can help surmount at a stop at Philadelphia’s Mount Airy Church of God in Christ. “We’re all imperfect beings. We don’t know where or what faith will deliver us to or when,” he said, while appearing to read from prepared notes. Black Democratic voters helped to rescue Biden’s primary campaign in 2020 and to put him in the White House. He has been beset by polls in this cycle suggesting Trump is making inroads in a community that usually votes overwhelming for Democratic presidential candidates.

Later in the day, Biden moved on to the state capital of Harrisburg, in the company of Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democratic rising star spoken of as a possible alternative nominee. Biden also traveled with Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, one of the most vehement supporters of his continued reelection campaign, and his old friend Sen. Bob Casey, who is in a tough reelection race, completed the impression of the commonwealth’s top Democrats protecting his back. “This election is going to be about blocking, tackling simple, basic politics, simple. It’s going to be a matter of how many signs we get out, how many doors we knock on, how many calls we make and how many requests we answer,” Biden told supporters.

His campaign has already announced that he plans to campaign in another vital swing state, Michigan, on Friday, following this week’s NATO summit in Washington. Hosting world leaders will allow Biden to highlight his credentials as a statesman and one of the most significant aspects of his term — his reinvigoration and expansion of the Western alliance and the steeling of US allies to meet the threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

If he can successfully navigate the event without more controversy, the focus may begin to turn away from his perceived liabilities and back toward Trump, who is expected to unveil his vice presidential nominee at or ahead of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee next week. By the time Biden is back in the spotlight, there will be even less time ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August for his critics to push any alternative nominee.

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