Joe Biden Is Fighting Back—but Not Against Trump, Really

Several days ago, Axios reported that President Joe Biden is “dependably engaged” in his Presidential duties only between the hours of 1src a.m. and 4 p.m., but on Monday, he seemed determined to own the morning. At the crack of 9 a.m., Biden published a public letter to congressional Democrats, arguing that the questions over

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Several days ago, Axios reported that President Joe Biden is “dependably engaged” in his Presidential duties only between the hours of 1src a.m. and 4 p.m., but on Monday, he seemed determined to own the morning. At the crack of 9 a.m., Biden published a public letter to congressional Democrats, arguing that the questions over his fitness—following his performance in the first Presidential debate—had been “well-aired” for over a week, but that it was “time for it to end.” He had been picked by fourteen million voters in the Democratic primary, he said, and why should their support be thrown aside? Half an hour later, calling in to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Biden worked to bolster the case—that the people were with him, and only weak-kneed insiders were against: “I’m getting so frustrated by the élites in the Party—‘Oh, they know so much more,’ Any of these guys that don’t think I should run—run against me. Announce for President, challenge me at the convention.” Of his critics, Biden said, “They’re big names, but I don’t care what those big names think.” (Notwithstanding the fact that Joe Scarborough—Morning Joe himself—has called into question whether Biden should run again.)

There was something faintly but indelibly Trumpian about this maneuver, in that the presumptive Republican nominee has also fought concerns about his age with displays of machine-gun pugnacity. If you are attacking, voters might intuit, you are probably not actively dying. (In this spirit, the President told donors on Monday afternoon that his plan was “attack, attack, attack.”) But Biden was also seizing on something more specific. As much as the political news cycle since the debate has been suffused with concerns about Biden’s cogency and his viability as a candidate, only a handful of Congress members have publicly called for him to withdraw from the race. This past weekend, some of the momentum among Democrats to replace Biden on the ticket seemed to stall, at least temporarily. A meeting that the Virginia senator Mark Warner had reportedly arranged with other senators to sound one another out about Biden alternatives didn’t happen; a rumor circulated that leaders of the large and influential Congressional Progressive Caucus would call for Biden to exit the race—but they didn’t. No challenger has stepped forward. That has left open a narrow window during which Biden can still claim that it’s just the pundits and élites—such as the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Thomas Friedman; and two of three Emanuel brothers—that are against him, as opposed to elected Democrats themselves.

Is this enough for him to hold the nomination? That question will define the summer, and could determine the election. Over the weekend, Biden campaigned in the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania; on Sunday morning, he was greeted in Philadelphia by the state’s governor, Josh Shapiro, and its two senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman. “It was, like, ‘Hey, welcome back to the real world,’ ” Fetterman told me on Monday. The President, he went on, “was getting out of the bubble and the beatdown he’s getting from places like the New York Times, and Democrats in Pennsylvania are thrilled to be getting their picture taken with you.” If the past ten years have made the political class amateur polling experts, then the past ten days have turned them into amateur neurologists. Fetterman, who has struggled with health issues of his own, passed along his up-close assessment of Biden: “His eyes were clear and bright.”

The news coverage, Fetterman groused, was slanted against the President: “It’s almost, like, when does journalism become advocacy? It’s almost like the New York Times has been behaving like an organ of the Trump campaign.” What was going on in Washington, the senator said, was a mirrored version of the fight (candidate versus Party élites) that had preoccupied Republicans last year: “Remember, Fox didn’t want Trump—they wanted someone else, and everyone thought that DeSantis was that guy, and Trump wrecked his shit.” Since the debate, Fetterman has distinguished himself as perhaps the President’s sharpest-tongued defender (“Chill the fuck out,” he tweeted afterward). He told me that one error Democrats were making when they looked at public polls that show Biden badly behind, was in thinking that Trump was fundamentally weak, and that another candidate would do far better than Biden. Fetterman said, “This idea that there’s some kind of mythical Democrat that would wipe the floor with Trump, it just doesn’t exist.” He said that he loved Kamala Harris, but didn’t think that the Vice-President would significantly outperform Biden: “I want to meet the voter that is, like, ‘I won’t vote for a Biden-Harris ticket, but I would be enthusiastic about a Harris-Someone Else ticket. I’m, like, ‘Why?’ ”

On “Morning Joe,” the President seemed decidedly more energetic, speaking with the forcefulness one would need to effectively take on former President Trump. What he did not do was effectively take on former President Trump. (As the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau put it, “Energy is great! Sounds great! Love that part. Message absolutely sucks.”) In Monday’s public letter, Biden had argued against Trump’s intimations that he might pass a huge tax cut for the wealthy, cut social security and Medicare, and repeal Obamacare—all good campaign issues. But, on “Morning Joe,” Biden didn’t mention any of that. When he addressed Trump, it was almost in passing: “This is a guy who—we talk about debates, look at his performance at debates? He lied. . . . I mean, this is a guy who says ten per cent of—ah, I don’t want to get into all that. He’s just a liar.” Any Democrat watching must have wanted to pause Biden right there, just as he was skipping past the evidence of Trump’s radicalism and mistruths by saying, “I don’t want to get into all that.” The job of the campaign, and the candidate, is to get into all that.

In his efforts to demonstrate vigor, is Biden finding his voice, or losing his way? Ro Khanna, the progressive California congressman, has served as a surrogate for the Biden campaign, and, when I spoke with him on Monday, he sounded as if he thought that Biden was missing an opportunity to press a more important contrast: that Biden stands, as Khanna sees it, for policies that would improve the well-being of the working class, and that Trump “wants to continue the Reagan trickle-down economics on steroids. I think that should be the case, and that needs to be the case every day.” Khanna said, “If I were advising the President, I’d say, “Why aren’t you out there on ‘Morning Joe’ talking about the fact that the communities that have been de-industrialized, they had record economic growth and job creation under your Presidency, and then under Donald Trump they went backwards . . . Get passionate about that instead of getting riled up about Democratic donors and pundits.”

The President’s limitations, Khanna went on, were obvious enough that it isn’t serving him well to insist that he isn’t losing by as much as the public polls suggest, or that his capacities are undiminished. Khanna said, “The President’s not very articulate anymore. I mean, that’s true! Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. I think. when George Stephanopoulos asked, ‘Are you the same person you were four years ago?,’ he should have said, ‘Of course not.’ ” Khanna went on, “I think there’s got to be a beginning of honesty, and I think vulnerability, and I think that can get people open to hearing the affirmative case. But you can’t just look like you’re denying what’s obvious.”

On Monday evening, the Democrats upon whom Biden’s electoral viability depends were meeting in various groups, ahead of a meeting of all House Democrats on Tuesday morning. The sense I got, even from those most insistent that Biden must go, was that if the President had not exactly convinced the critics, he might at least be successfully running out the clock. Earlier that day, the Times reported that a neurologist who specializes in movement disorders, of which Parkinson’s disease is one, had visited the White House eight times in eight months, and Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, refused to answer questions about the reasons for the visits at her daily briefing. That same day, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, often put forward as a potential alternative candidate, said that she would not run even if Biden were to step down. The progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “Joe Biden is our nominee. He is not leaving this race. He is in this race and I support him.” Representative Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, was even more pointed. “We are losing the plot,” she said. “Joe Biden is the nominee.”

Around dinnertime on Monday, I spoke with the Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton, as he was walking to the House floor for a vote. Last week, he became one of the first elected Democrats to call for Biden to leave the ticket. Moulton told me that the President, in his latest media appearances, had appeared “more vibrant and energetic than he did in the debate,” but that didn’t change Moulton’s basic calculation: What he heard most from Democratic colleagues, Moulton said, was a worry that “it isn’t going to get better; it’s going to get worse.” Nearly half of all Democratic voters say that Biden should step aside as the nominee, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll released on Sunday. Moulton said that initially he’d tried to make his case to party leaders privately for Biden to drop out, but “that didn’t work.” Going public might not make a difference, either, but Moulton seemed to think that the situation was grave enough to merit such a move on his part. “This time in 2src12, President Obama was doing four events a day—unscripted interviews, town halls, meeting with a ton of constituents,” he said. “That’s what you need to do to win and—we’re not ahead right now, we’re behind, we’re behind against a convicted criminal. So we need a big change, not a little change.” ♦

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