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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How Biden is leveraging his defiance to try to stem Democratic defections

A television is tuned to the debate between former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden at Shaw’s Tavern in Washington on June 27, 2024. President Biden’s increasingly emphatic declarations that he will not exit the presidential race are delivering an unmistakable message to potential wayward Democrats: Any criticisms going forward damage the party’s chances against Donald Trump. (Eric Lee/The New York Times)

By Shane Goldmacher

President Joe Biden’s increasingly emphatic declarations that he will not exit the presidential race are delivering an unmistakable message to potential wayward Democrats: Any criticisms going forward damage the party’s chances against Donald Trump.

For days, Biden has said he will remain his party’s nominee after his poor debate short of an intervention from “the Lord Almighty.” On Monday, he put that assertion into action.

It began with an open letter to congressional Democrats saying he was definitely running. It continued with a defiant call into one of his favorite cable news shows decrying the “elites” trying to shove him out. It included a midday appearance on a private video call with some of his campaign’s top financiers as well as a call into a virtual meeting Monday evening with a bulwark of his past support: the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I am not going anywhere,” Biden told the donors.

The moves amounted to a show of defiance that the Biden operation hoped would earn him some deference, as uneasy Democratic lawmakers trickled back to Capitol Hill after a holiday break. At the same time, the Biden team was trying to reframe the pressure campaign to get him to step aside as one hatched by the elite party establishment rather than a genuine reflection of grassroots voter fears about the 81-year-old commander in chief’s age and acuity.

“I love this fighting Joe Biden,” said Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., an outspoken Biden supporter. “When he takes a punch, he’s going to come back and punch harder.”

As lawmakers returned to Washington, Biden received some key words of support, including from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York (“He is in this race; the matter is closed”), but also some concerns among influential lawmakers, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who is in the Democratic leadership (“We need to see a much more forceful and energetic candidate”).

Both in his private and public remarks Monday, Biden made clear he holds all the cards when determining his political future. He has won every state in the Democratic primaries and 14 million votes, netting him practically every delegate headed to Chicago next month for the party’s convention.

“I’m more than the presumptive,” Biden said to Mika Brzezinski, one of the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” during his MSNBC phone interview. “I’m going to be the Democratic nominee.”

Biden is trying to turn attention back on Trump, saying on the call with the campaign’s top financiers: “We’re done talking about the debate. It’s time to put Trump in the bull’s-eye.”

Even some of the president’s allies, however, were asking why the public-relations blitz was coming more than 10 days after the debate rather than its immediate aftermath. Biden had waited eight days after the debate to sit for his first unscripted interview, with ABC News on Friday, and did not call congressional leaders until days after the debate.

David Doak, a longtime Democratic strategist, said the effort to impose party discipline was understandable for Biden even if it risks “dividing the party at the worst time.” By insisting so unequivocally he is not stepping aside, Biden is making it harder for Democrats to call for him to do so lest they weaken him for the fall.

“Strategically, it is what I would be advising him to do if he wanted to hold on to the nomination at all costs,” Doak said. “It is the ‘at all costs’ which is the question at hand.”

On MSNBC, Biden goaded those who want a different nominee to try running against him. “Go ahead, announce for president,” Biden dared them. “Challenge me at the convention.”

In 2020, Biden spoke of serving as a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic talent. Now he sees himself as the party’s best chance to defeat Trump again, regardless of widespread concerns about his age.

“I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t absolutely believe that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump in 2024,” Biden said.

Despite his standing as the head of the party and the most powerful elected official in the nation, Biden tried Monday to take on the mantle of an outsider fending off the establishment of his own party.

“I’m getting so frustrated by the elites,” Biden said on the MSNBC show that has long been a favorite of the Democratic political establishment. “I’m not talking about you guys,” he said of the “Morning Joe” co-hosts, “but by the elites in the party who, they know so much more.” He uttered those last words with a singsong tone of disdain.

He added that his weekend of campaigning in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had reaffirmed his belief that voters were standing by him. “I don’t care what the millionaires think,” Biden said.

Less than three hours later, Biden was participating in a Zoom call with members of his national finance committee — the top donors, millionaires and financiers who bundle contributions from others — to thank them for their support.

Biden’s attempt to reframe the race as a battle against the elites — in an echo of how Trump has often bashed his own party’s leadership — did not sit well in some quarters of the party.

“This desire to wedge the ‘Dem elite’ against ‘regular folk’ is bad,” Hilary Rosen, a veteran Democratic strategist, wrote on the social platform X. “The elite are actually late to concerns about Biden. A majority of voters have been concerned about this for the last two years.”

A New York Times/Siena College poll last week showed that 74% of voters said Biden was too old to be effective, including 59% of Democrats.

A day after some influential House Democrats had met virtually in a private call and aired their concerns about standing behind Biden, the president’s operation began lining up and receiving more statements of support, including from some key Black lawmakers.

“I am 100% with the president,” Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said on MSNBC. The current chair, Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, issued a statement Monday standing by Biden, too: “President Joe Biden is the nominee and has been selected by millions of voters across this country.”

Rep. Grace Meng of New York, a former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, also issued a supportive statement. Some of those who had criticized Biden in private were largely silent publicly, including Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who declined to answer questions about the president at an appearance in Manhattan.

Still, Biden continued to suffer some fresh Democratic doubt Monday.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is up for reelection this fall in a state Trump is expected to carry in a landslide, said the president “has got to prove to the American people — including me — that he’s up to the job for another four years.”

And Rep. Greg Landsman of Ohio said “time is running out” for Biden, whom he said needed to be able to make his case “again and again and again.”

Biden’s next steps are expected to be the central topic of discussion Tuesday when House Democrats are scheduled to hold a members-only briefing at party headquarters.

The central concern among many Biden allies has been the president’s ability — or inability — to handle unscripted appearances.

On Monday, a White House spokesperson, John Kirby, announced that the president would also participate in what he called a “big boy press conference” Thursday after a NATO summit.

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