"Time is running out": Even Obama worries Biden will lose as Dems brace for bad NY Times poll

A growing number of elected Democrats publicly say Biden should drop out — or he is "going to lose" to Trump

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published July 3, 2024 10:56AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden during a campaign event at The North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, NC on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden during a campaign event at The North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, NC on Friday, June 28, 2024. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden has made four minutes of prepared, public remarks since the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority handed Donald Trump what could amount to dictatorial powers. His first unscripted appearance won’t be seen by voters until Friday, when ABC will begin airing clips of an interview with George Stephanopoulos that the Biden campaign hopes will reset the conversation and get the public and press to move on from the president’s abysmal debate performance last week.

It's not good enough and it won't erase the very recent past.

It’s not just that Biden did poorly in the debate. Defenders of his continued viability as a candidate argue that all incumbents do bad their first time out. Former President Barack Obama, recall, lost his first 2012 match up with Mitt Romney, spurring anxiety attacks and questions about whether a once-in-a-generation political talent should even remain on the ballot.

But Biden is not Obama and it wasn’t just a mediocre aberration, the version of the president that 50 million people watched on stage. It was, according to political analyst Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, “the worst performance ever by a major party candidate in a general election presidential debate.” It was “so bad,” indeed, “that it has forced us to reassess some of our assumptions about the race,” with the nonpartisan group deciding to downgrade the key battleground state of Michigan from “Leans Democratic” to a “Toss-up.”

It was so bad it overshadowed Trump’s own deranged performance: a mix of incoherent babbling about Democrats killing literal babies and a barrage of racist lies about immigrants, who are in fact less prone to criminality, as a group, than the presumptive Republican nominee and his political allies. Polls suggest voters generally hated what they saw and heard, but they clearly hated Biden’s showing more, clear majorities rating him as honest and decent but also unfit for the job.

Biden’s inner circle has dismissed concerns as either media hit jobs or the neurotic fretting of liberals rightly anxious about Project 2025, a blueprint for authoritarianism authored by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a Trump presidency no longer bound by the rule of law. They point to recent polls showing that Biden’s debate performance has only cost him a couple points, if anything.

But Biden does not have a couple points to spare and the debate was not supposed to be another obstacle for his campaign to overcome; it was supposed to be the reset — the public appearance that was supposed to remind viewers that the economy is actually pretty good and the president far more capable than viral clips would suggest — not the thing that would require one.

And it’s not just pundits with a deadline to meet who are deeply worried about the president’s ability to compete this fall. According to The Washington Post, Obama himself, while publicly hewing to the line that it was a one-off bad debate, is privately expressing fears that Biden’s already difficult path to reelection has been made that much harder by the president appearing as a the worst-case scenario of himself on prime-time television. Although he has not urged Biden to step aside, per the Post, he has spoken directly with the president to “offer his support as a sounding board and private counselor.”

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Speaking to donors on Wednesday (after raising more money than Trump in the month of June), Biden attributed his poor debate to a strenuous schedule, noting he “nearly fell asleep” during the debate because he had “decided to travel around the world a couple times” in the weeks preceding the event. But the president also had nearly a week of downtime at Camp David before he stepped foot in Atlanta.

At least some donors are now thinking of cutting Biden off, hoping to compel a change in the ticket before August’s Democratic National Convention.

“Seventy-two percent of people want something different,” James Carville, the quintessential Democratic insider, said on a call Tuesday with donors to Democratic SuperPAC American Bridge, Semafor reported. “Why not give it to them?”

Carville's comments are a reflection of widespread concerns in the party. Questions about Biden’s fitness are not merely a product of a media frenzy but what people saw with their own eyes, causing them to reassess the path forward. As one donor said, per Semafor: “Continuing to have President Biden at the top of the ticket is giving people an excuse to vote for Donald Trump.” Said another: “What can we as donors do to encourage the change in the ticket?” (In their own call with donors, the Biden campaign’s resident pollster could only say that "a large majority" of 2020 Biden voters were still with him.)

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The conventional wisdom is that only someone like Jill Biden can encourage her husband to pass the reins to someone else, such as the most viable replacement: the 59-year-old vice president, Kamala Harris. But, assuming Biden is a patriot who does not want to share responsibility for the demise of democracy in November, he could also be persuaded by frankness — the raising of alarms — from elected Democrats.

Some of the concerns expressed could be characterized as rats fleeing a sinking ship. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, penned an article openly welcoming another Trump presidency, saying the Republican “is going to win” and “I’m OK with that.” Another swing-district centrist, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Wash., likewise declared that “Biden is going to lose to Trump,” a product she said of “the damage [that] has been done by that debate.”

It’s easy to dismiss such comments as treachery from lawmakers who may only be nominal Democrats, but it’s an indication of which way the wind is blowing. Less easy to dismiss, from the left, is Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, a stalwart progressive who on Tuesday became the first elected Democrat to explicitly call on Biden to step aside — a call that came the same day as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., publicly conceding that it’s legitimate to ask whether Biden’s debate performance was one bad night or an actual “condition.”

The calls for Biden to step aside will grow, particularly as new polls come in. Just Wednesday morning, the Biden campaign sent out an all-staff bulletin claiming internal polls show a statistically tied race, with the president dropping only a few tenths of a percent, but warning that the next survey from The New York Times/Siena College would likely “show a slightly larger swing in the race,” Politico reported.

Speaking to MSNBC, former Rep. Julián Castro, D-Texas, who challenged Biden’s mental fitness during the 2020 Democratic primaries, pleaded with the president to make a touch decision — and to make it now.

President Biden should fulfill his promise to be a bridge to the next generation of leadership and allow a stronger Democratic candidate to prevent a disastrous second Trump term,” Castro said Tuesday. “Time is running out.”

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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Analysis Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden