Did Joe Biden’s ABC Interview Stanch the Bleeding or Prolong It?

At what point does political conviction curdle into something closer to denial? When I interviewed President Biden in January, I was struck most by the defiant confidence he had in himself: his dismissal of concerns about his age, his belief that he was “the one” to keep Donald Trump from regaining the Presidency, his rejection of warnings that he was behind in the polls. On Friday night, Biden sat down with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News. It was startling to hear the President make many of the same points again, as if the siege of the past eight days had barely registered.

Moments into the conversation with Stephanopoulos, it became clear that Biden had a limited desire to take away any lessons from his debate with Trump on June 27th, which pummelled the confidence of Democrats and stirred frantic talk of replacing him on the ballot. “Did you ever watch the debate afterward?” Stephanopoulos asked.

“I don’t think I did, no,” Biden said. It was a casually astonishing reply. In 2012, when President Barack Obama flopped in his first debate against Mitt Romney, Obama’s advisers arranged for him to sit through a tape of the spectacle, to grasp what his critics—and voters—had absorbed. This time, either Biden has not wanted to, or his advisers have not pressed him to.

Stephanopoulos wanted to know whether Biden understood, during the debate, how badly it was going, or, after, the impression it left on the Americans he had challenged to “Watch me” when judging his fitness for another four years in office. Biden replied by asking, in effect, for forgiveness: “After that debate, I did ten major events in a row, including until two in the morning.” He went on, “Large crowds, overwhelming response, no slipping. And so, I just had a bad night.” He chalked it up to exhaustion and a cold—a “bad episode” but not an indication of a “serious condition.”

Most of Biden’s responses in the interview were in that vein—a little meandering, demanding of recognition, presented far more lucidly than he had managed on the debate stage, but not with the kind of nimble, commanding presence that would silence the chorus of Democrats who want him to step aside. If it has come to be accepted that the eighty-one-year-old President of the United States has, in the language of the moment, good days and bad days, this was, in the strictest sense, a good day. In other words, as Michael Tomasky, the editor of The New Republic, put it in a comment on X, “That was the worst possible outcome: not anywhere near good enough to settle matters, but also not quite bad enough to be a slam-dunk that he has to go tomorrow.”

The interview was twenty-two minutes, surprisingly short for such a high-profile moment, when Biden and his advisers have been accused of hiding from the press, and he might have benefitted from showcasing more energy and stamina. But it was more than long enough for Biden to make his essential point: He is nowhere close to getting out of the race. “If you can be convinced that you cannot defeat Donald Trump, will you stand down?” Stephanopoulos asked. Biden laughed, and said, “If the Lord Almighty comes down and tells me that, I might do that.”

For now, Biden remains in political purgatory. The debate performance has been searing, and his recovery has been fitful. No President in recent memory has gone on to win reëlection with approval ratings this low. It hardly helped that, on Wednesday, in a meeting with Democratic governors, Biden said that he needed more sleep and planned to stop scheduling events after 8 p.m. On Thursday, in an interview with a radio station in Philadelphia, he made the kind of flub that might have been shrugged off at another time, saying he was proud to be “the first Black woman to serve with a Black President.” By Friday, donors were going public with plans to withhold or redirect their dollars.

The Party’s patience may be running short. A handful of Democratic members of the House have called for Biden to step aside. Though no senators have yet done so, in frantic private conversations they have questioned whether the President’s aides are shielding him from the full depth of concern. Not long before Biden sat down for the ABC interview, the Washington Post reported that Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, had begun to assemble a group of colleagues to ask Biden “to exit the presidential race.” Details were scant, but the report was the clearest sign yet that more than a week of efforts to solidify support was failing, especially among lawmakers who worried that Biden’s woes could damage Democrats’ chances in down-ballot races. At his core, Biden is a creature of Capitol Hill, and the thought of harming his party’s chances in Congress could shake his resistance. The other route past his pride might be to frame the risks to his historical legacy; he often invokes, as a solemn oath, “My name as a Biden,” and if he leads the Democrats to failure against Trump, that fact will forever accompany his name.

The prospect of Warner’s delegation evokes the scene in August, 1974, when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and colleagues visited the White House to tell President Richard Nixon, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, that he no longer had the votes to survive impeachment. Nixon announced his resignation the next day. According to the Post, “There’s a growing consensus among Senate Democrats that the situation with Biden at the top of the ticket is untenable.”

In truth, consensus, in the absence of actual votes, can be hard to measure precisely. On Friday afternoon, Representative Gerry Connolly, of Virginia, was asked, on CNN, if he believed that Biden still gives Democrats the best shot to win in November. “I don’t think we know that yet,” he said. It was a remarkably ambivalent assessment. The coming week, he added, will be “very consequential in hopefully putting to rest—or not—the questions that have arisen.” David Chalian, CNN’s political director, noted that conversations among elected Democrats and strategists about replacing Biden have progressed to the point of weighing the value of various potential running mates. “This is not a party that is rallying around Joe Biden,” he said.

Still, though an overwhelming majority of the electorate feels that Biden is too old to serve another term, there are signs that at least some elected officials might be metabolizing the drama faster than the general public. Not long after Connolly signalled his openness to the possibility that Biden might not finish the race, Representative Debbie Dingell, of Michigan, called in to say that she had encountered constituents who are unnerved by the prospect of primaries being, in effect, nullified by an effort to replace the nominee. “Today, I got screamed at, and reminded of how many millions of people had voted to nominate Joe Biden,” she said. “This is a very complicated issue.”

Biden himself has indicated that he just might try to rally voters against political grandees who move against him. A few hours before the ABC interview, in a feisty speech at a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, he said, “Millions of Democrats like you just voted for me in primaries all across America. You voted for me to be your nominee. No one else.” He went on, “Despite that, some folks don’t seem to care who you voted for. Well, guess what? They’re trying to push me out of the race. Well, let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race!”

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