Biden buys time but every day tests his capacity to keep his campaign alive

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  — 

Joe Biden’s refusal to step aside stifled attempts to push him off the Democratic ticket on Tuesday.

But the president’s abject debate performance and defiance in the aftermath have badly weakened his standing in a party already unenthusiastic about his campaign. His terrible two weeks threaten to further narrow an already tenuous path to reelection against an invigorated former President Donald Trump, who burst back onto the campaign trail Tuesday night with a blistering rally in Florida, nine days before he accepts the Republican nomination.

Deep disquiet over the president’s prospects hung over shaken Democratic senators and representatives in Washington Tuesday, as venting sessions took place behind closed doors at both ends of the US Capitol.

But no critical mass of lawmakers emerged to seriously threaten Biden’s hold on the nomination and the party’s Senate and House leaders offered clear, if hardly effusive, support for the president. Ultimately, Biden’s warning in a letter to lawmakers on Monday – “I am firmly committed to staying in this race” – and the knowledge that primary voters have spoken left his critics little leeway to act.

But he’ll face a fresh test on Thursday when he holds a solo press conference at the end of the NATO summit. Any slip ups or confusion would rip off the fragile patch Biden has fixed on the dam of Democratic Party support.

The spectacle of a party debating the viability, strength and mental capacity of its nominee less than four months from Election Day encapsulates the crisis that has consumed the president’s campaign. There is little evidence so far that Biden is ready to throw himself into saturation-level town halls, campaign swings and media blitzes that many Democrats — including those who think he should stay in the race — have called on him to do. Some Democrats now see him as unlikely to win in November. And for all of them, the vibe is existential because Trump, the Republican presumptive nominee, has rarely been in a stronger political position since jumping into presidential politics.

Biden survives a critical day

Tuesday had been seen as a critical day for Biden because it was the first time lawmakers gathered en masse since the debate late last month and the July Fourth recess that followed. But even as the number of lawmakers calling for him to step aside ticked up, the president so far this week has managed to stabilize the post-debate crisis.

“We do want to turn the page. We want to get to the other side of this,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, although Biden’s parlous political fortunes as the oldest-ever president mean this may be an impossible aspiration.

Still, Biden delivered one of his strongest recent public appearances in welcoming world leaders to the NATO summit in Washington Tuesday, even if the effect of aging was obvious in his diction and movements. “Remember, the biggest cost and the greatest risk will be if Russia wins in Ukraine. We cannot let that happen,” he said, while lauding the “single greatest, most effective defense alliance in the history of the world.”

The boldness of Biden’s rhetoric was a reminder that the summit should have been all about showcasing his leadership as one of the most significant leaders of the West since World War II and setting up a contrast with Trump, who spent his first term berating America’s European allies. Instead, the event has turned into a test of the president’s acuity.

White House officials told CNN’s Kayla Tausche that Tuesday’s speech went off as planned and that staff hoped that Biden could now go back to “business as usual.” That’s unlikely to happen because every public event by the president has turned into an excruciating vigil with everyone braced for gaffes, awkward moments or freezes. And his every on-camera appearance is refracted through the prism of a debate performance that seared an unflattering picture of a struggling Biden on the minds of 50 million viewers. It’s a low bar for a president to get through a short, scripted speech on a teleprompter at a summit without having a catastrophe. And Biden’s often glacial pace in big public moments creates poignant contrasts with the wise-cracking force of nature that he used to be.

The equation is unlikely to change over the next four months because it’s endemic to this matchup and the president’s decision to run for a new term that would end when he is 86.

Biden needs one of his classic comebacks more than ever

Still, it’s too early to count Biden out. Voters decide elections, not critical lawmakers or scathing media commentary. The president has repeatedly defied predictions of his political demise and has found inner steel in a life scarred by personal tragedy and political disappointments. And Trump, the first former president to be a convicted criminal, has an uncanny capacity to alienate moderate, suburban, and swing voters with his extreme rhetoric and threats against his opponents. The ex-president will be back center stage next week at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, which is likely to turn into a MAGA festival that the Biden camp sees as a chance to reinforce the contrast with Trump that the president’s debate nightmare obliterated for the last two weeks.

Most post-debate national polls suggest Biden lost at least a couple of points to Trump in what had been a race inside the margin of error. There is little high-quality polling in swing states so far that spans the debate aftermath. But Biden was generally seen as trailing Trump in many of the battlegrounds that will decide the election before the debate, which he needed to use to reset his clash with Trump. Instead, he created reverse momentum that he’s still not arrested. And it’s not just a question of the horse race. Biden was unable to use his debate answers to frame a sharp contrast with Trump on the most important issues to Democrats, including abortion, taxes, character, and the ex-president’s perceived threat to democracy and founding US values. This – along with Biden’s somewhat delusional disbelief in his own mid-30s approval rating and the apparent state of the race – fueled Democratic despair.

That sense of disappointment with Biden was on display as lawmakers filed into their meetings on Tuesday, with many declining to speak to reporters on the way out. A source familiar with the Democratic Senate lunch told CNN’s Dana Bash that a trio of senators — Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana — all told colleagues they don’t think Biden can beat Trump.

“It’s true that I said that,” Bennet told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins later Tuesday. “Donald Trump is on track, I think, to win this election and maybe win it by a landslide and take with him the Senate and the House.”

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said senators believe Biden must take on unscripted situations to answer questions from voters. King, asked what would happen if Biden stumbled in such settings, replied: “It seems to me that’s a risk they have to take. If he’s OK, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

One of Biden’s most fervent supporters, Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, defended the president. “We concluded that Joe Biden is old; we found out, and the polling came back that he’s old,” Fetterman told CNN. “But we also agreed that he’s our guy.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is rarely reluctant to speak at length, was asked several times about Biden but only replied, “I’m with Joe,” in an apparent attempt to shut down the line of questioning.

Biden got a boost when New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who had privately expressed doubts about the president’s spot on the ticket, said he’d now support him. But the New York Democrat hinted that his decision had as much to do with the difficultly of pushing the presumptive party nominee aside as a feeling that he was a strong bet. “I’m not resigned to it. He made very clear he’s going to run. He’s got an excellent record, one of the most excellent presidents of the last century. Trump would be an absolute disaster for democracy; so, I’m enthusiastically supporting Biden,” Nadler said.

The president has also been bolstered by the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, a vital power player in the House Democratic Caucus. Many of the CBC’s members are in solid blue districts and may be under less pressure than frontline Democrats who have criticized the president’s debate performance. Texas Rep. Marc Veasey expressed concern for those vulnerable colleagues when criticizing Biden’s attempt to bounce back from the debate. “Whatever I have seen so far hasn’t shown me that that’s going to be enough to get there. I just don’t think that dog is gonna hunt,” Veasey told CNN’s Manu Raju. “I think that he has a long way to go and I think there are stronger candidates that would be more likely to beat Trump at this point, but if he says that he is going to stay in, (then) he’s the nominee,” Veasey said.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey lavished praise on Biden’s presidency and his victory over Trump in 2020 but became the seventh House Democrat to call on him to stand aside on Tuesday. “Because I know President Biden cares deeply about the future of our country, I am asking that he declare that he won’t run for reelection and will help lead us through a process toward a new nominee.”

Some Democratic leaders sought to jump their members out of their angst by launching an attack against Trump. “Every single member of the House Democratic Caucus is clear eyed about what the stakes of this election are,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar, the chairman of the caucus. “Donald Trump cannot be allowed near the Oval Office and his extremist allies must never be allowed to pass a national abortion ban or their dangerous Project 2025, which would erode our democracy and enable Trump’s worst impulses,” the California Democrat said. But the strength of his presentation in a press conference only served to highlight the lines of attack that Biden largely missed in the debate.

There was a brighter mood around the Democratic ticket in Las Vegas, where Vice President Kamala Harris displayed the forensic rhetoric of a former prosecutor to attack Trump. “I will say that someone who vilifies immigrants, who promotes xenophobia, someone who stokes hate should never again have the chance to stand behind a microphone and the seal of the President of the United States,” Harris said.

For those Democrats who think Harris would make a better nominee than the president, her fiery delivery was a reminder of an alternative 2024 path that Biden has acted to close off.

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