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Crisis? What Crisis? Biden Rejects Democratic Pessimism

Crisis? What Crisis? Biden Rejects Democratic Pessimism

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All sounds fine in President Biden’s world. That devastating debate? Just a bad night. Those dismal poll numbers? Simply inaccurate. The gloomy election predictions? The same old doomsayers, wrong again. The Democrats who want him to drop out? No one has told him that.

For Mr. Biden, the crisis seen by so many Democrats who are not on his payroll — and by some who are — is nothing more than another bump in the road, another obstacle to overcome as he always has. He does not agree that he is slipping as he ages. He does not accept that he is losing to former President Donald J. Trump. He does not believe much of his own party wants him to step aside.

His prime-time interview that aired on ABC News on Friday night was an exercise not just in damage control but in reality control. For much of his long and storied political career, Mr. Biden has succeeded through sheer force of will, defying the doubters and the skeptics and the scorners to prove that he could do what no one expected. Yet now, in what may be the most threatened moment of his presidency, that self-confidence leaves him increasingly isolated in his own party.

“You really see a president in denial and in a bubble,” Julián Castro, a former housing secretary who ran against Mr. Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020, said in an interview. “You want a president who can honestly and accurately assess his viability in this race, and that interview did not give confidence at all that he’s got a good handle on that.”

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who has long expressed worry about Mr. Biden’s decision to run again, said the president was rightfully proud of his record. “But he is dangerously out-of-touch with the concerns people have about his capacities moving forward and his standing in this race,” he wrote on social media.

Mr. Biden’s performance in the 22-minute session with George Stephanopoulos was not viewed as disastrously as his debate against Mr. Trump eight days earlier. But while his most loyal supporters presumably found enough reassurance to stick with him, those who have turned against him or were on the verge of doing so did not seem comforted, and time is running out if the party is to change nominees, as some would like.

While Mr. Biden had a ruddier color to his face this time and looked calm and composed with his hands in his lap and legs crossed, he once again sounded hoarse and at times tentative, sometimes struggling to finish a sentence. He was dismissive about concerns about his health, denied that he was more frail and ducked questions about medical tests.

He took responsibility for his debate performance repeatedly — “nobody’s fault but mine” — but then blamed it on exhaustion and sickness and Mr. Trump “shouting” and distracting him. Even so, he indicated that he did not know whether he had actually watched a recording of the debate afterward. He said that he has a cognitive test every day because he is “running the world” and that he would only step aside as a candidate “if the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race.’”

Probably the one line that generated the most irritation among fellow Democrats was his response when Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Biden how he would feel in January if he loses to Mr. Trump and has to turn the White House back over to the former president. “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about,” Mr. Biden replied.

Multiple Democrats expressed exasperation at that afterward, declaring that the election was not about earning a participation trophy but about stopping a convicted felon who tried to overturn an election he had lost, urged “termination” of the Constitution to return himself to power and vowed to devote his next term to exacting “retribution” on his adversaries. One House Democrat, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussion, said that he hoped the Lord Almighty would be coming to talk with Mr. Biden soon.

Every president to some extent lives in a bubble of his own making, insulated from the outside world in the fortress on Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounded by a phalanx of aides and Secret Service agents and reassured by allies of his singular importance in the world. Mr. Biden decided to run for re-election even though he would be 86 at the end of a second term after convincing himself he was uniquely capable of beating Mr. Trump.

A dozen Democratic lawmakers and strategists contacted after the ABC interview expressed serious doubt that he could defeat Mr. Trump at this point. But whether they were telling this to Mr. Biden personally was less clear. Friends of presidents tend to shy away from delivering the harshest news directly, often trying to pass such messages instead through the news media where it can be discounted or through aides who may or may not fully convey them.

If the message has not gotten through privately, it may grow louder publicly. A Democrat working for the party predicted more elected officials would call for the president to step aside. Another Democratic ally of the White House said the interview had not solved the problem and amounted to a stay of execution for Mr. Biden. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

“This interview was necessary but not sufficient,” said Paul Begala, a leading Democratic strategist. “It will not quell the growing anger and resentment among Democrats. Nothing short of President Biden doing a Simone Biles triple flip with a double twist can make Democrats un-see that debate.”

For many Democrats who are fond of the president, the interview was painful to watch. Mr. Stephanopoulos was respectful and professional but pressed Mr. Biden repeatedly on the hard questions that no octogenarian wants to face about his own mental acuity and future capacity.

At one point, Mr. Stephanopoulos even seemed to offer Mr. Biden a dignified way out, only to have the president reject it.

“The prevailing sentiment is this,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said of Democrats. “They love you, and they will be forever grateful to you for defeating Donald Trump in 2020. They think you’ve done a great job as president, a lot of the successes you outlined. But they are worried about you and the country. And they don’t think you can win. They want you to go with grace, and they will cheer you if you do. What do you say to that?”

“I say the vast majority are not where that — those folks are,” Mr. Biden replied, ignoring polls showing roughly half of Democrats think he should withdraw. “I don’t doubt there are some folks there.” He then went on to compare the current situation to uncertainty about his ability to win four years ago. “Same thing happened in 2020,” he said, then mimicked the pessimists. “‘Oh, Biden, I don’t know. Man, what’s he going to do? He may bring me down.’”

Mr. Stephanopoulos said he had never seen a president with a 36 percent approval rating get re-elected. “Well, I don’t believe that’s my approval rating,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s not what our polls show.”

The White House understood that a single interview was never going to rectify the crisis over the debate by itself. But Mr. Biden and his aides had hoped it would at least steady the situation and begin to slowly rebuild confidence along with rallies like the one he did in Wisconsin on Friday and a news conference during next week’s NATO summit meeting in Washington.

Mr. Biden has been counted out so many times over the last half century that he has a preternatural belief in his own ability to recover from any setback. He sees himself as a long game player, calm in the face of tumult around him. In recent days, he has sounded surprisingly measured to friends who spoke with him even as he recognized the challenges he faces.

Mr. Biden now heads into a weekend when fellow Democrats will be deciding what to do next. Some Democratic lawmakers and major donors are organizing efforts to pressure the president into leaving the race or rethinking his approach. The president’s time on television on Friday does not seem likely to head that off.

“I can’t imagine it will do much, if anything, to calm the nerves of Democrats on Capitol Hill,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democrats. “We are in for a rough couple of days.”

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