The Memo: White House plays damage control as peril deepens for Biden

damage stanage AP

The White House was engaged in a furious round of damage control on Wednesday as the crisis around President Biden deepened.

Biden’s aides, both at the White House and on his campaign, are seeking to bat down damaging stories almost by the hour — before they draw fresh blood from a president who has been badly wounded since his disastrous debate performance in Atlanta last Thursday.

Asked during Wednesday’s White House briefing whether Biden was considering stepping down as the Democratic nominee, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied, “Absolutely not.”

A New York Times story hours earlier had reported that Biden had told an unnamed ally that he was weighing whether or not to stay in the race.

Jean-Pierre said communications staff had sought clarity from the president on the point. 

“The president said no, it is absolutely false — that is coming directly from him,” Jean-Pierre insisted.

White House Senior Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates shot back at later reports that suggested Biden had “privately acknowledged” the next few days would be critical to his political survival.

“It is false to suggest that there is any openness to ending the campaign,” Bates insisted on social media.

Whatever the White House or the Biden campaign may say about the specifics, there is no real denying that Democratic panic sparked by last Thursday’s debate has spread.

Meanwhile, elements of the Team Biden response, including a sluggishness about offering one-on-one assurances to congressional leaders, have left spooked Democrats apoplectic.

Biden spoke to key Democrats on Capitol Hill by phone and, on Wednesday evening, held an in-person meeting with Democratic governors.

Afterwards, three of the attendees — Minnesota Gov. Tim Waltz, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul — briefly addressed reporters in the evening sunshine outside the West Wing.

The key message, repeated word for word by both Moore and Hochul, was that Biden is “in it to win it.”

Waltz, asked by a reporter whether he believed Biden was “fit for office,” replied that he was.

“None of us are denying Thursday night was a bad performance…but it doesn’t impact what I believe,” Waltz added.

Even at such ostensibly reassuring moments, however, there was another example of how hard it is for the Biden team to get on top of the story.

It came when Waltz offered yet another explanation for the president’s dismal debate performance in Atlanta, saying the president told the governors he had got tripped up on the details at the expense of the bigger picture.

The Minnesota governor said that Biden had recounted to the governors how “I’m worrying about numbers on this [when] it’s about people, it’s about their lives.” Waltz characterized this as the “idea that you get in your own head.”

This is at least the third different explanation for Biden’s misfire, the other two being that he had a cold and that he was tired from international travel which, in fact, had concluded almost two weeks before the debate. 

The meeting with the governors offered a sliver of light in a dark tunnel for Biden. But elsewhere, his troubles multiplied.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) became the second House Democrat to call for the president to stand aside, following Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) on Tuesday. 

Grijalva told the New York Times that he would support Biden if he remained the candidate. But he cast the crisis as an “opportunity to look elsewhere” and said that Biden needed to “shoulder the responsibility for keeping that seat — and part of that responsibility is to get out of this race.”

A third House Democrat, Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) stepped right up to — but not quite across — the line of calling for Biden to exit. 

In a statement, Moulton said that he respected “all the great things” Biden had done but added “I have grave concerns about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.”

The same sentiment was heard throughout the Democratic Party, which is in the grip of a collective panic about the likelihood of Biden losing the White House to Trump, who many Democrats believe represents a unique danger to American civic life.

Wednesday’s polls fueled that panic.

A New York Times/Siena College poll put Trump up by six points nationwide among likely voters — a doubling of Trump’s edge since a poll from the same organizations just before the debate.

A Wall Street Journal poll put Trump up six points among registered voters, an increase of four points from February. The Journal’s survey also found a staggering four-in-five voters believing Biden is too old to seek a second term.

Those two polls came on top of a CNN/SSRS poll the previous day that had also found Trump up by six points, thought the margin in that instance had remained unchanged since a previous poll in April. 

If Biden pulled out, he would be the first incumbent since President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 to abandon an expected reelection effort.

Such a move would also plunge the party into fresh turmoil — a point that Biden loyalists make repeatedly as they work to ensure his survival.

Absent Biden, Vice President Harris would be the obvious heir apparent. But she would not be guaranteed the nomination nor, her detractors note, do her poll ratings indicate she is a surefire bet to do any better against Trump. 

Democrats have been crying out in private for Biden to do more public events, in the hope of showing that the Atlanta debate was an aberration. 

The danger, of course, is that any serious flub or misstep could be the end of the road.

There are several such appearances on the horizon: an interview on Friday with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, scheduled campaign trail appearances in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the promise of a news conference during next week’s NATO summit in Washington.

Biden’s future hangs in the balance. The next few days might well decide his fate.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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