Biden tries but fails to turn back rising tide threatening to swamp his reelection bid

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  No president has ever needed a public holiday like Joe Biden needs July 4.

Biden is battling frantically to save his political career by escalating defiance. But he’s in danger of being swamped by a rising tide against him as more Democrats express doubts that he can beat Donald Trump after a disastrous debate performance.

The president will gather family members who will be critical to his future deliberations on his reelection campaign at the White House for Independence Day — in sore need of a slow news day that would allow him to regroup for potentially the most critical 48 hours of his political career.

As speculation exploded Wednesday that he may be considering pulling out of the race, Biden unequivocally declared that he was in it to win. He then met 20 Democratic governors at the White House to try to prove he has the energy and acuity to win and lead for four more years. On Friday, Biden will sit for an interview with ABC News that’s now shaping up as an even greater challenge than the CNN debate, given his need to put in a nimble and forceful corrective performance. Biden’s swing state campaign stops will, like his every single public appearance now, be parsed for any slip-up or sign of vulnerability that supports the impression that Biden created for himself on the debate stage of a diminished commander in chief.

“I am running. I’m the nominee of the Democratic Party. No one’s pushing me out. I’m not leaving,” Biden declared to spooked campaign staff on a phone call on Wednesday as he searched for an elusive comeback.

Now, it’s jet lag that was the problem

But the tough emerging reality for the president is that the assurances, shifting explanations and spin that his political aides have come up with so far are not working — because there may be no answer to his predicament.

The image of an incoherent, weak and struggling president was seared on the minds of 50 million viewers a week ago. And even a far more competent damage control effort than the White House and the Biden campaign have mounted so far would have struggled to erase that impression.

Attempts to explain his struggles in Atlanta are only refocusing attention on the core problem: super majorities of voters doubt he’s fit enough to serve a new term that would end when he is 86.

On Wednesday for instance, the White House picked up Biden’s line that he was jet lagged after two trips to Europe in early June. Given that the president had been back on US soil for over a week at the time of the debate, this only begged fresh questions over whether he’s up to the onerous demands of the presidency — that frequently requires extensive travel.

The idea that delayed jet lag — in combination with the cold that aides said he also had — could cause Biden to trail off in the middle of sentences and fail to make a coherent case on issues basic to his campaign did nothing to arrest his political slide. And it meant that Wednesday was yet another day when the focus was on Biden’s disintegrating campaign rather than the grave threat to democracy and America’s political freedoms that the president warns is posed by Trump.

At the end of a day of stinging blows to the president, a senior administration official told CNN’s MJ Lee that the gradual erosion of his support among Democrats was like “waves crashing into the shore.” The official added: “First it’s the donors. And then it’s elected officials. Now it’s going to be polling. It just breaks down the resistance.”

Things started bad for Biden on Wednesday and then got worse.

A second Democratic elected official broke cover and called for Biden step aside from his reelection campaign. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona told The New York Times he’d back Biden if he was the nominee but that “this is an opportunity to look elsewhere.” He added: “What he needs to do is shoulder the responsibility for keeping that seat — and part of that responsibility is to get out of this race.” While few other lawmakers have been so frank, there are many more who share the views of Grijalva and Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett who spoke out on Tuesday.

A jolt of new polling had bad news for Biden. A New York Times/Siena College survey found Trump now leads by 49% to 43% among likely voters nationally, picking up a three-point swing from a week earlier before the debate. In the CNN Poll of Polls, the ex-president leads by five points (49% to 44%, in head-to-head polls conducted entirely after last Thursday’s presidential debate). Candidates who win debates often get a blip in polling that later recedes. But Biden came into the showdown behind and needed to gain altitude. Instead, he’s trending in the opposite direction after squandering his best chance to reset the race.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre endured yet another rough ride in the briefing room, as she came up with a new explanation of why Biden performed so badly in Atlanta, which she insisted was not an excuse. “What I want to say is, it’s the jet lag and also the cold right?” she said. “It is the two things and that occurred, and you heard it in his voice when he did the debate.”

Biden launched a round of calls to key Democratic power brokers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, and his friend Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. He also recorded two radio interviews that will air Thursday in swing states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And Biden had the Democratic governors to the White House. Two, Minnesota’s Tim Walz and Maryland’s Wes Moore, offered him a boost with supportive comments to reporters. But Moore, a Democratic rising star, also said: “We always believe that when you when you love someone, you tell them the truth. And I think we came in and we were honest about the feedback that we were getting. We were honest about the concerns that we are hearing from people.”

Another governor — and potential alternative nominee – Gavin Newsom of California, said in a statement to CNN that Biden was “all in. And so am I. Joe Biden’s had our back. Now it’s time to have his.” There is no sign that the sentiments are not genuine. But there’s also no political incentive for any Democratic Party power player eyeing the future to risk being seen to destabilize an already wounded president. Several possible alternative nominees, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Vice President Kamala Harris, were in Biden’s meetings with the governors.

Some of the top Democrats in the House said it was time for the president to step aside, in a call with top party leadership in the chamber, CNN’s Annie Grayer reported. But some members were also concerned about the frenzy that could ensue if the president went and left a power vacuum on the presidential ticket.

There were the first signs on Wednesday that the Trump campaign is calibrating how far the ex-president would need to pivot if Biden abandons his reelect. Co-campaign chairs Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles issued a statement warning that any replacement could expect a hammering for hiding “the truth from the American public” about Biden’s condition. “Every one of them has lied about Joe Biden’s cognitive state and supported his disastrous policies over the past four years, especially Cackling Copilot Kamala Harris,” they wrote.

Biden’s vehement vows to stay in the race appeared to be a response to reporting in The New York Times and on CNN that the president understands the coming days are critical and could end his campaign. The White House and the campaign said the reports were false. But any sign Biden is wavering could be disastrous to on-the-ground campaigns in swing states. If Biden does get out, he’ll probably be insisting he’s in until the final moments.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported that a succession plan is taking shape that could see the president immediately throw his support, his campaign war chest and his delegates behind the vice president to head off a fight for the nomination that could split the party.

Biden’s new reality was on show in the afternoon when he presided over a ceremony to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to two Civil War soldiers. The event was carried live on cable TV, in a sign that every move the president makes from now until November will be filtered through the prism of his debate failure and parsed for new signs of decaying faculties.

 Another problem for Biden is that key Democratic figures who remain supportive of the president are making clear he must do more to reshape public perceptions of his capabilities and do not rule out him quitting the race. “We are going to trust him to make the right decision about the crossroads that we are at right now,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin said on CNN. And Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, summed up Biden’s critical days ahead when she warned: “He has got a very short period of time to talk to the American people.”

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