Biden's family blames advisers for debate as Dems "at every level" question if he should be nominee

The family, including Hunter, is urging him to stay in the race and fire his top advisers

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published July 1, 2024 11:52AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, along with granddaughters Natalie (L) and Finnegan (2nd L), walk from Marine One to board Air Force One at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, New York on June 29, 2024. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, along with granddaughters Natalie (L) and Finnegan (2nd L), walk from Marine One to board Air Force One at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, New York on June 29, 2024. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

First, there was the panic: Joe Biden, especially in the first half of last week’s debate, looked and sounded as old as an AI-generated deep fake of the president made be a 20-year-old groyper. Exercising none of the party discipline seen in the GOP — where it would be political suicide to describe a liar convicted of dozens of felonies as anything but an honorable statesman — Democrats indulged their anxiety, often in public, fretting about whether the leader of their party ought to be swapped out for someone (anyone) who is not 81 years old.

Then Biden reappeared at a rally the next day, looking and sounding like the man who previously allayed concerns about all the time he’s spent on this earth with a strong and dynamic performance during his State of the Union address. He’s still got it, some top Democrats said, pouring cold water on fever dreams of a brokered convention and a President Gretchen Whitmer.

“The other night, I saw Joe Biden reppin' for words and phrases, and even numbers that he was loaded up with,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., told CNN on Sunday, blaming Biden’s lackluster performance on his aides and too much preparation. “The next day, he gets to North Carolina, he’s freewheeling, and he captivated the audience,” Clyburn noted, arguing that it spoke to the need for Democrats to “stay the course.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Fla., likewise urged the Democratic faithful to move on from a bad 90 minutes and focus more on getting out than vote than clutching at pearls.

"I have never known a more resilient human being than Joe Biden," the Florida lawmaker said on MSNBC. "If there is anyone who can turn Thursday night and the aftermath of that into a motivating force going forward, to be able to rally the troops and make sure that he can be focused and make sure that we can turn our voters out, it is Joe Biden."

But these are Democrats, rightly fearful of what returning Donald Trump to the White House could mean for democracy around the globe, and Biden does not enjoy a cult of personality like his rival. That is to say: the anxiety continues over whether the incumbent president still has what it takes to again defeat someone many liberals view as the standard-bearer of American fascism.

“This is what a real political party looks like and this is what a real political party does,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told MSNBC as a way of explaining why people “at every level” are having “a serious conversation about what to do.”

“Obviously there was a big problem with Joe Biden’s debate performance,” Raskin said, “and there is also just a tremendous reservoir of affection and love for Joe Biden in our party, so this makes it a difficult situation for everybody.”

What Raskin did next is likely to have more impact, in terms of getting the president to consider the once unthinkable, than The New York Times’ editorial board, whose call for Biden to step aside 24 hours after the debate appeared only to rally rank-and-file Democrats to their leader’s side: The Maryland lawmaker explained the stakes this November and how Biden can still cement his legacy even if he decides now is the time to pass the baton.

“Whether he’s the candidate or someone else is the candidate, he is going to be the keynote speaker at our convention,” Raskin said. “He will be the figure that we rally around to move forward and beat the forces of authoritarianism and reaction in the country.”

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Over the weekend, Biden campaign officials made the case that the president is still the best man to bury MAGA, sharing polls that suggest the debate — while still a fiasco, one mitigated only by the other guy’s unhinged and incoherent performance — was not a four-alarm emergency, Biden still neck-and-neck with the only former president to ever incite an insurrection after losing an election, be convicted of felonies and found liable for rape.

But those polls also show that a large majority of voters do not believe that Biden has the physical or mental fitness to complete another four-year term in office. And while many also doubt Trump’s fitness, the numbers are not particularly close, which risks making the November election a referendum on the president’s age and not Trump’s criminality and desire, per Truth Social, to see his political opponents subjected to “televised military tribunals” and ultimately executed.

The polls, always to be taken with some grains of salt, also suggest Vice President Kamala Harris would do just as well in a head-to-head with Trump, as would a host of other, less realistic alternatives, undercutting the case for Biden or bust. Axios also reported over the weekend that the Biden people saw on the debate stage is not an unfamiliar sight to those who work with him every day; several aides said that while the president is “dependably engaged” every day, particularly when the sun is up, he is “more likely to have verbal miscues and become fatigued” when the day draws to a close.

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A president getting tired at night is not a national emergency, but it is a major political problem. Biden will not be getting any younger between now and Sept. 10, when the next debate is slated to take place. While the Biden clan, which met Sunday, reportedly believes the problem with the last performance can be addressed — by firing some of the president’s advisers, per Politico, citing sources “briefed on the family conversations” — the damage is arguably done: People already saw a version of the president who will at the very least pop up again in Republican attack ads (and they are unlikely to attribute it to Biden preparing too hard).

Where things go from here depends largely on polls and dollars. If Biden’s numbers plummet in the coming days, speculation about how could take over the Democratic ticket will turn into actual planning. Some of the party’s most important financial backers are already bringing up the possibility, having dialed in to what NBC News described as a “tense” call over the weekend with Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez.

But as Rodriguez explained on the call, it’s not that there is no alternative to Biden, it’s just that, realistically, there is only one — and it’s not a generic Midwestern governor, but Vice President Kamala Harris, who is likely the only Democrat who could inherit the Biden-Harris war chest, worth in the area of $100 million, and take over as the standard bearer without fracturing the party.

It is possible that Biden’s debate performance will have as much an impact on the polls as past debates have had, historically, which is to say: just about none at all. Sitting down for some hard interviews — showing that Debate Biden was the aberration and that State of the Union Biden is still there — could also steady the ship and reassure those in the party who are currently freaking out and openly lusting after other boats.

But it’s also more likely that the conversation about Biden’s age and acuity continues through August, when Democrats formally pick a nominee at their convention in Chicago. Biden will be the keynote speaker, but he may well be using that prime-time address to talk up his successor.

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz James Clyburn Jamie Raskin Joe Biden Kamala Harris