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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In a staring contest with Democratic voters, Joe Biden hasn’t blinked

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden at a reelection campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, June 28, 2024, one day after his debate with former President Donald Trump. The Biden campaign’s first post-debate ad closed with Biden declaring, “When you get knocked down you get back up.” (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Shane Goldmacher

For years, President Joe Biden has had a ready retort for the naysayers who have questioned his facility and fitness to run for president again at age 81 and to serve until he is 86. “Watch me,” he has said.

But in the days since tens of millions of Americans watched him fumble Thursday’s debate in real time, Biden has essentially adopted a new line: Trust me.

“Folks,” he said at a New York fundraiser the next night, “I would not be running again if I did not believe with all of my heart and soul that I can do this job.”

It’s a cliché of political strategy that smart campaigns meet voters where they are. That typically means fashioning a strategy that taps into the public’s existing feelings, rather than seeking to change how the electorate perceives matters.

Yet the trouble for the president is that even on the eve of his faltering debate, a New York Times/Siena College poll showed that 69% of voters — and 55% of Biden voters — saw Biden as too old to be an effective president. It is not a new concern: Nearly two years ago, a strong majority of Democratic voters said they wanted a new standard-bearer.

Now those persistent concerns from everyday Americans are being echoed publicly by many in the Democratic Party’s pundit class and privately by lawmakers, donors and strategists. They are worried about losing a 2024 campaign against former President Donald Trump, whom many view as an existential threat to the nation.

“Biden’s debate performance was a catastrophe from which there may be no recovery,” one House Democratic lawmaker texted a Democratic donor, Whitney Tilson. Tilson, a former hedge fund manager, shared the message on the condition the lawmaker not be named.

Around Biden, a siege mentality has set in for a team that remembers — and is fond of repeating — how it outlasted the doubters four years ago to win the nomination in the first place.

“He’s really at his best when the pundits are overreacting and counting him out,” Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s closest advisers and his former chief of staff in the Senate, said in an interview. “He has a hell of record. I think he should stay. He is the best president in modern history.”

Instead, the debate flop has ignited a fresh round of questions about whether Biden should stay atop the ticket. At the least, it has prolonged the very conversation his team had hoped to extinguish.

“The gift Joe Biden gave us was agreeing to a debate before the convention,” said Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and the co-host of the popular progressive podcast Pod Save America who has called for the party to consider replacing him. “If the debate was in October, I would be holding my tongue.”

Favreau said the Biden camp’s attempts to silence the second-guessers were insulting to voters.

“Guess what — millions of Americans saw that,” Favreau said of the debate, “and you can’t just tell people who are criticizing that they’re bed-wetters and crazy.”

On the Democratic National Committee’s call for members over the weekend, the party chair, Jaime Harrison, spoke while everyone else was on mute. It felt to some like a too-on-the-nose metaphor for party leadership’s lack of desire for genuine grassroots feedback.

The Biden campaign sees the $26 million in grassroots donations and volunteer sign-ups that tripled the usual rate as evidence of voter support post-debate.

In recent days, Biden has more frontally acknowledged his flaws — and not just on the debate stage, saying that he didn’t “walk as easy as I used to” or “speak as smoothly as I used to.”

Some attention has centered on the role of the first lady, Jill Biden. Her assistance to her husband as he tried to descend a step after the debate went viral, as did her post-debate praise at a rally (“Joe, you did such a great job!”). On Monday, Vogue unveiled its newest cover, featuring Jill Biden wearing a $5,000 white Ralph Lauren tuxedo dress alongside the words: “We will decide our future.”

Michael LaRosa, a former adviser to Jill Biden, said those expecting her to urge her husband to step aside fundamentally misunderstood their political relationship. He said it was a partnership forged in part by Joe Biden’s early exit in the 1988 presidential race after a plagiarism scandal.

“In 1987, she saw him be forced out by the press, pundits and polls, and it was really a scarring experience for both of them,” said LaRosa, who said he had discussed the 1988 episode multiple times with the first lady when he worked for her. “I think they learned from that experience and they weren’t going to have their hands forced like they were in 1987.”

The Bidens, LaRosa explained, view Joe Biden’s life and career as a tale of overcoming adversity. “This is another chapter of resilience in what is the story of Joe Biden,” he said, summarizing how he believed they would see it.

Indeed, the Biden campaign’s first post-debate ad closed with Biden declaring, “When you get knocked down you get back up.”

Any serious reckoning inside the party about Biden’s age was put on ice after the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats outperformed expectations. The White House took it as validation of its political strategy — and of the limitations of studying the president’s sagging approval ratings for clues to the outcome of elections.

“My intention is that I run again,” Biden said the next day.

And that was that.

In the wake of the debate, senior Biden officials are making the case privately that switching candidates would be unrealistic, risky and chaotic. And in a fundraising message, Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager, explicitly argued that any alternative would “be less likely to win than Joe Biden.”

Some of the Democratic Party’s future leaders urged voters to stand by Biden.

“We’ve got to have the back of this president,” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said on MSNBC in the spin room after the debate. The next morning, Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania went on MSNBC and said, “Stop worrying and start working.”

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