Column: Barbara Boxer gives Biden two weeks to fix his ailing campaign

WASHINGTON - APRIL 05: Senate Foreign Relations Committee member U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-CT) speak quietly during the testimony of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill April 5, 2006 in Washington, DC. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answered questions about the recent civilian nuclear cooperation deal struck between the U.S. and India during the hearing titled "U.S.-India Atomic Energy Cooperation: The Indian Separation Plan and the Administration's Legislative Proposal." (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
When Barbara Boxer arrived in the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden served as a mentor of sorts and the two grew personally close. She gives the president two weeks to assuage voter concerns about his age and mental acuity. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

When Barbara Boxer arrived in the U.S. Senate, her image as a fiery liberal from Marin County — land of crystals, hot tubs and aging hippies — preceded her.

It was not a good thing.

"The word was that I was this very militant feminist and the guys were frightened to death," Boxer recalled.

The colleague who smoothed her path — "She's good people," he assured the Old Bulls — was Joe Biden, who by 1993 was already starting his third decade on Capitol Hill.

The two grew close, personally and politically.

"We really bonded on protecting dolphins and protecting women," Boxer said of their legislative work (regulating purse seine nets, cracking down on domestic violence), which had begun in the 1980s when she was in the House.

Boxer endorsed Biden when he ran for president in 1988 and again in 2020, notably passing over the Democrat who replaced her in the Senate, Kamala Harris.

Given all that, Boxer was slack-jawed as she and family members watched Biden mumble and bumble his way through his disastrous debate performance last week. "This wasn't the Joe we knew," she said. "Something was off."

Instantly, what had been a persistent, low-grade nervousness among Democrats turned into a full-fledged party freak-out. A small but growing chorus has called for the 81-year-old incumbent to withdraw from the presidential race, before it's too late and he drags his party down with him. (Many more express that sentiment in private.)

Boxer isn't there. Not yet, anyway.

Read more: Column: Biden bumbles, Trump lies and we all lose

Two weeks, she said. Give Biden two weeks to demonstrate that his zombified appearance in Atlanta was an anomaly.

"The man has done it, time and time again," Boxer said this week in a conversation from her home in Palm Springs. "Every time he's been counted out, he's come back. Can he do it one more time? I don't know the answer. But out of respect and admiration for what he's done, let's give him the time to do it.

"And if he can't, he can't," Boxer said, "and there will be someone else."

That's not exactly a stand-firm-until-the-last-dog-dies endorsement.

But it's not casting a gravely wounded Biden to the wolves, either.

When the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein was going through her widely chronicled mental and physical decline, there were widespread calls for her to quit and make way for someone younger, more vigorous and more acute. Boxer, who made history with Feinstein when the two were elected to the Senate in tandem, offered a gentle nudge. There is life — and a good one — to be had after leaving the Senate, she advised her former colleague in a 2021 interview.

But Boxer never overtly pushed Feinstein, the way many others did. Her fellow Democrat died in September at age 90, hours after casting her final vote on the Senate floor.

The situation with Biden is different, Boxer said.

"We don't know what happened with Joe," she said, still puzzled nearly a week later.

She speculated. Perhaps his lifelong stutter kicked in under the studio lights? Maybe Biden suffered from a terrible head cold, or from cold medication he'd taken?

"I think the president owes the country an explanation," Boxer said. And more crucially, she went on, he needs to show voters that he can not only take on Donald Trump, but that he can also defeat him in November.

"He needs to be out without a script. Without a teleprompter and just face the press, face the public," she said. "That's critical."

Biden has made a few public appearances, including a comparatively feisty showing at a North Carolina rally the day after the debate. He spoke to reporters following the Supreme Court's carte blanche decision granting presidents near-total immunity, and again while discussing the country's sizzling weather at an emergency operations center in Washington.

But Biden worked off a teleprompter and refused to take reporters' questions.

The president's first without-a-net appearance is a scheduled interview Friday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. The stakes are exceedingly high. Another tottering performance could lead to a dam burst of calls from Democrats for Biden to step aside.

Meantime, polls taken after Thursday night's debate show Biden losing ground to Trump and voters expressing heightened concern about the president's mental and cognitive health.

Read more: Biden resists allies’ calls to exit race after debate performance: ‘I know I’m not a young man’

Like many people, Boxer speaks of a Trump restoration in apocalyptic terms.

"This race is like no other," she said. "We have to stop a man who says he's going to be 'a dictator on Day One.' Who wants to imprison his opponents. ... It gets worse and worse, day by day."

She extolled Biden's performance over the last 3½ years: his record on job creation, addressing climate change, fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs. But that's all in the past, and none of it seems to matter very much to voters who, in the here and now, worry and wonder very much about Biden's capabilities going forward.

Democrats are nervous, Boxer said. "I'm nervous. I'm very nervous."

But she's still willing to give Biden a shot at one more political comeback. Two weeks, she said. "Because in August we have the convention, and if there is going to be an open convention, there needs to be time for people to decide who they're supporting."

That's a long way from "Biden or bust." It shows even the best of friends and greatest of admirers have limits to their hope and patience with a president whose mental and physical capacities seem to be touch-and-go.

But there's no room for sentimentality with so much at stake.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.