team Biden tries to beat back the Democratic doubters

After 10 days of frantic efforts to reset Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — such as teleprompter-aided rally speeches that proved little and a traditional sit-down interview with a TV personality that flopped — the president’s team unveiled a new aggressive plan on Monday: an assault on the three Democratic power centres that threaten to turn against him.

In just a few hours, Biden took on the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, friendly media figures such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, and angry Democratic donors who have plotted to switch horses.

“We can’t waste any more time being distracted,” the 81-year-old president told a group of Democratic donors on a private call on Monday afternoon. “I’m not going anywhere, folks. I’m in this to the end, and I’m going to beat Trump — I promise you.”

It was a part of a three-pronged manoeuvre that kicked off a week that Biden and his team know could decide his fate.

Lawmakers are returning to Washington, ready to debate his future — and after his disastrous debate performance against Trump 10 days ago, many are ready to debate whether he should remain the Democratic candidate in this year’s White House race.

On top of that, Nato allies arrive in town on Tuesday, and many are alarmed at his political problems and ready to scrutinise his performance too, including at a high-stakes press conference on Thursday.

Later in the week, Biden is set to travel to Michigan for another rally with voters — an effort to prove his fitness for another gruelling four months of campaigning.

But in the short term, Biden’s most important message will be for Democrats on Capitol Hill. He was explicit in a letter to them on Monday that he was not leaving anytime soon, accusing his critics of thwarting the will of Democratic primary voters who backed his nomination, and blamed the calls for him to drop out of the race on the “elites” who had always underestimated him.

“Run against me, go ahead, announce for president. Challenge me at the convention,” he fumed on MSNBC, in a rare impromptu phone interview with Scarborough, who had warned after Biden’s debate against Trump that Democrats would lose November’s election unless they changed their candidate.

It was a defiant message, echoing in less colourful language the advice of Democratic Senator John Fetterman to his party: “Democrats need to get a spine or grow a set — one or the other. Joe Biden is our guy.”

But by mid-afternoon on Monday it was far from clear that Biden’s counterattack on his media, donor and congressional sceptics had succeeded.

By then, Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, had become the latest lawmaker in the president’s party to call for his exit from the race, saying he must do so “as soon as possible”.

“The president’s performance in the debate was alarming to watch and the American people have made it clear they no longer see him as a credible candidate to serve four more years as president,” Smith said.

When Democratic senators meet for their regular Tuesday lunch, Biden’s future will be on the menu. Some of them appear to be more sceptical than their colleague Fetterman.

“President Biden has got to prove to the American people — including me — that he’s up to the job for another four years,” Jon Tester, a Democratic senator facing a tough re-election battle, told local media in Montana.

Sherrod Brown, facing his own tough re-election battle in Republican-leaning Ohio, told reporters that he had spoken to people across his state who had “legitimate questions about whether the president should continue his campaign, and I’ll keep listening to people”.

Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat and chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said Biden needed to “aggressively make his case to the American people, and to hear directly from a broader group of voices about how to best prevent Trump’s lawlessness from returning to the White House”.

The Biden campaign has been buoyed by some public support from important Democratic constituencies, particularly Black and Hispanic lawmakers who have rallied to his side.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York progressive Democrat, told NBC she was backing Biden. “Joe Biden is our nominee. He is not leaving this race. He is in this race and I support him.”

Steven Horsford, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Democratic representative from Nevada, also added his support, saying “millions of voters” had picked Biden in the party’s primary this year.

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“President Joe Biden is the nominee and has been selected by millions of voters across this country, including voters here in Nevada,” said Horsford.

Biden overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary contest earlier this year — easily defeating Dean Phillips, a Minnesota lawmaker who argued the president was too old — although the party had already endorsed his bid, stacking the deck against any challenger.

As the debate flared on Monday on Capitol Hill, Biden officials were pummeled with questions about his physical and mental fitness. Karine Jean-Pierre, his press secretary, would not be drawn on whether numerous visits to the White House by a Parkinson’s disease expert in recent months were related to Biden. 

“Has the president been treated for Parkinson’s? No. Is he being treated for Parkinson’s? No . . . Is he taking medication for Parkinson’s? No,” she said.

John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, was also forced to defend Biden’s acuity. “The last two and a half years, I have not seen any reason whatsoever to question or doubt his lucidity, his grasp of context, his probing nature and the degree to which he is completely in charge of facts and figures,” Kirby said. 

One Democratic powerbroker suggested Biden’s days as a candidate for re-election may well be numbered. 

“Unless there are data that show our chances of success in the House and Senate haemorrhaging, I think it would be very hard to move the president and his family off of where they are,” he said. “But I think that we will see that.”

Roger Hochschild, a prominent Biden donor and former Discover Financial Services chief, told the FT last week that he remained in favour of the president’s candidacy and that the debate “didn’t change my views”. He praised the Biden administration for providing “stability” for the past three years, stock market highs and low unemployment.

But opposition to Biden’s candidacy among other Democratic donors remains significant.

Stewart Bainum Jr, a hotel mogul, told the FT that Biden was a “hero”, but should now step aside. “It makes sense for him to pass the baton. It’s in the interest of the country, the world and [him] personally.”

Several donors have touted Democratic governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gavin Newsom of California as possible replacements for Biden — though vice-president Kamala Harris would also be a strong candidate.

Biden’s future is likely to be determined over the coming days in the halls of the US Capitol. As he walked into the building on Monday afternoon, Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader who will be central to the discussions about the president’s fate, had a pithy line of support for the embattled president. “I’m for Joe,” he said.

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