Democrats reel from Biden’s stumbling debate showing

The question on many Democrats’ minds: Now what?

Democrats were reeling from the presidential debate where they saw President Biden not only do poorly but bomb what was supposed to be a narrative-defining moment. And with the threat of a second Donald Trump presidency looming, they spent Friday trying to figure out if the current president could still somehow be the right person to defeat the former president.

While Democrats are the first to admit that they scare easily, Thursday night’s debate wasn’t a typical moment. Democrats often feel like the sky is falling when it comes to politics, and former President Obama’s first debate in 2012 against Republican nominee Mitt Romney did not go well. But Biden’s Thursday night performance was still seen as something different.

Interviews with more than a dozen party strategists, donors and other operatives indicated a palpable concern about Biden’s future on the Democratic ticket. And while some Biden allies chalked it up to one bad night, they were drowned out by the chorus of other Democrats looking for other options.

“This is real,” said one prominent Democratic donor. “This isn’t one of those bulls‑‑‑ made up storylines.

“This wasn’t the Obama-Romney debate,” the donor added. “This is a million times more dire and now we have to start asking the tough questions.”

Democratic pundits also said Biden had a bad night.

“I think there was a sense of shock, actually, at how he came out at the beginning of this debate,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an appearance on CNN. “How his voice sounded. He seemed a bit disoriented.”

Axelrod said Biden “did get stronger as the debate went on,” but he predicted there would be discussions about whether the president should continue as the party’s standard-bearer.

Either way, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said Biden and his team need to do a better job communicating what is going on.

“The question is: Is the president OK? Did he just have a bad day or is something else going on?” Simmons told The Hill. “And if he just had a bad day, the campaign can go forward and he can recover from one bad performance.

“But it’s incumbent upon the president and the White House to make sure Americans feel comfortable with the president’s age,” he said. “And they’ve got to take the bull by the horns because this is not something that will go away.”

Democrats on Friday were wondering aloud about Biden’s potential exit strategy and who might replace him and whether his potential replacement could beat Trump.

Even the most ardent Biden supporters said Friday that the president went from having a decent chance at winning reelection to losing to Trump.

“I thought he had a 60 percent chance of winning before the debate and now I think he has a 40 percent chance,” one Democratic strategist close to the campaign said. “He has become the underdog.”

During a campaign rally in North Carolina on Friday, Biden sought to silence the consternation from Democrats.

“Folks I don’t walk as easy as I used to, I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to, I don’t debate as well as I used to,” Biden said. “But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth.”

“I know right from wrong,” the president added. “I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. I know what millions of Americans know: When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

As CNN ran an on-screen caption that said there was “aggressive panic” among Democrats, Biden’s aides rushed to say that Biden isn’t stepping aside. And the president reiterated that sentiment at the campaign event.

“Folks, I give you my word as a Biden, I would not be running again if I didn’t believe with all my heart and soul I can do this job, because quite frankly, the stakes are too high,” Biden said.

Democrats said they would see how the narrative would continue to play out over the coming weeks. They pointed out that Trump also has had near-campaign-ending headlines loom over his presidential campaigns since the 2016 race.

“I understand the anxiety, I just don’t think that panic wins elections,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who once served as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And one thing that Donald Trump taught us after the ‘Access Hollywood’ tapes supposedly destroyed his 2016 election, is that we live in a political environment where nothing is as good or bad as it seems at any given moment.

“This needs time to bake,” Israel added.

Still, most Democrats agreed that if Biden falls further in polls against Trump, or if there is clear evidence that Democrats are suffering down the ballot as a result of the debate, party leaders would have no choice but to step in and urge Biden to drop out of the race.

On the popular “Pod Save America” podcast hosted by several former Obama aides, the discussion quickly turned to next steps.

“The best thing Joe Biden did is to propose this debate before the convention and give us a chance now to, like, rethink this,” said Jon Favreau, who served as Obama’s chief speechwriter.

Another host, Jon Lovett, also expressed his worry after watching the debate: “It is because the threat that Donald Trump poses that we have to have this debate right now about whether or not it should be Joe Biden.

“Do not tell us that because Donald Trump is a threat we cannot have this conversation,” Lovett continued. “That’s ridiculous.”

At the same, Democrats worried about yet another fracture in their party, this time over Biden’s fitness for office.

“At this point, I want whatever will unite the party,” a second Democratic strategist said. “Maybe we just all need to get our feelings out and so some throat-clearing before we double down and rally around the president. But the worst possible outcome would be a situation where half the party wants that, and half is clamoring for a new candidate. That would be disastrous.”

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