Biden’s ABC interview does nothing to quell the existential crisis around his campaign

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Washington CNN  —  President Joe Biden’s struggle to prove he’s got the strength and cognitive capacity for a second term is becoming an excruciating personal and national ordeal.

Watching a visibly aged Biden answer frank questions Friday about his health on primetime television – which would normally remain between a patient and their doctor – felt like an affront to presidential dignity. It was sad to see a person who’s respected and beloved by many Americans suffer such a plight. And it would be a hard heart that did not empathize with Biden as he confronts the painful human realities of aging in the most public manner imaginable.

Yet Biden’s position, his shocking presidential debate performance and his defiant refusal to contemplate its implications for his reelection campaign, mean he’s forcing the country to have the conversation.

The political tide may be turning against Biden, but the interview underscored his deep pride in a presidency that it took him nearly half a century to achieve. And he’s not close to giving up his lifelong mantra to stand up and fight when he’s knocked down – a factor that will exacerbate the Democratic Party’s dilemma.

While his interview performance was far stronger than the president’s often incoherent showing at the CNN debate in Atlanta, that’s not saying much. It did not contain any new disasters that would push him immediately out of the race. But it equally did little to quell the storm assailing his campaign and raised fresh intrigue about his health amid increasing signs his Democratic power base is beginning to crack.

It’s becoming clear that the president, his party and the country are slipping inexorably into a political crisis that raises the extraordinary possibility that a presumptive nominee could be pushed aside weeks before his party’s national convention and four months before one of the most critical elections in history.

The threats to Biden’s prospects are quickly mounting. Two more Democratic congressman Friday called on the president to cede the nomination to a younger candidate. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner moved forward with an effort to get Senate Democrats on the same page about Biden’s future and is reaching a place where he thinks it’s time for Biden to suspend his campaign, a source familiar with his efforts told CNN. And House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries scheduled a virtual meeting with ranking party committee members as he faces increasing pressure from his conference over Biden’s position, a Democratic lawmaker said.

A test set by the campaign

Biden’s campaign had scheduled the interview with ABC News to try to prove that the president’s stumbling debate performance last week was an aberration and to shut down growing doubts about his position as his party’s 2024 nominee.

He appeared more composed and fluent than at the CNN debate. He made a far more robust argument for his own successes in office and more effectively prosecuted a case against Trump than he did in the debate. And he dug in deeper despite calls by a handful of a Democratic lawmakers for him to fold his reelection bid and the growing panic among many others yet to break cover.

He also dismissed concerns about his health, insisting that he was not frailer than before. “Can I run the 100 (in) 10 flat? No, but I’m still in good shape,” Biden said.

“I don’t think anybody’s more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” Biden said in the interview conducted in swing state Wisconsin.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” Biden said, but added: “The Lord Almighty’s not coming down.”

But Biden’s admission that he felt “terrible” in the days before his clash with the Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump only posed new questions about his health. Those questions come at a time of growing anxiety that he’s well enough at 81 to shoulder the exhausting demands of the presidency and the strain of a reelection bid.

Biden compounded those doubts by seeming unsure about whether he’d watched a playback of the debate – “I don’t think so, no,” he said when asked if he’d watched the event – and other moments in which he trailed off in some sentences. And he added yet another explanation for his poor debate performance to add to his allies’ claims he was overloaded with facts by staff, jet-lagged and suffering from a cold. The president said Trump’s insistence on speaking even though his microphone was muted had put him off.

Asked whether he was the same man who took office three years ago, Biden deflected by offering a litany of his achievements. “In terms of successes, yes,” he said. “I also was the guy who put together a peace plan for the Middle East that may be coming to fruition. I was also the guy that expanded NATO. I was also the guy that grew the economy. All the individual things that were done were ideas I had or I fulfilled. I moved on.”

The president was adamant that the debate was a only “a bad night” for which he took responsibility. But more than a week after the event, and amid rising fear among Democrats about his prospects in November and the possibility of what it will mean for democracy if Trump wins a second term, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. One bad night on such a high-profile stage before millions of viewers may be all it takes to irretrievably damage the campaign of president who will be 82 two weeks after Election Day, who large majorities of Americans worry is unfit to serve and who is asking the country to keep him in office until January 2029.

Americans are worried about the next four years, not the last three

Biden and his supporters warn that his painful 90 minutes on stage in Atlanta should not overshadow the achievements of his time in office. And they say that the threat posed by Trump and his autocratic instincts and vow to dedicate a second presidency to “retribution” far outweigh concerns over Biden’s capacity.

But the question that millions of Americans are asking has less to do with a review of Biden’s first-term legacy and is more about whether he can function for four more grueling White House years.

The interview also begged the question of whether the president is fully aware of the corrosive impact of the debate on confidence among Democrats over his chances of beating Trump. He quarreled with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos over polling that showed him slipping further behind the former president nationally and in swing states.

The interview was one of a series of events, including the Friday rally and a planned news conference at the NATO summit next week in Washington, that the campaign has held up as moments to prove Biden’s fitness.

But Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California told CNN that the president needed to do a prolonged and live television interview unlike the recorded one on ABC. Other members are demanding the president get out far more to prove his stamina, even though the campaign on Friday promised an “aggressive” program of events in July.

But that pledge did not stop the growing demands for Biden to step aside.

“President Biden has done enormous service to our country, but now is the time for him to follow in one of our founding father, George Washington’s, footsteps and step aside to let new leaders rise up and run against Donald Trump,” Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton told Boston radio station WBUR in an interview that went out before the ABC interview aired. And Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley said Biden’s continued presence in the race has “almost no hope of succeeding.”

“I would say Mr. President, your legacy is set. We owe you the greatest debt of gratitude. The only thing you can do now to cement that for all-time and prevent utter catastrophe is to step down and let someone else do this,” Quigley told MSNBC. He later added on CNN: “What we need right now – and what I think takes a spine – is to step aside and recognize the president of the United States doesn’t have the vigor necessary to overcome the deficit here and it’s going to affect us all.”

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey did not go quite so far but said in a statement to CNN that Biden needed to “carefully evaluate whether he remains our best hope to defeat Trump. Whatever President Biden decides, I am committed to doing everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump.”

The agonizing over Biden’s fate is especially painful for Democrats because many of them believe that the president has done a good job in reviving the post-Covid-19 economy, powering job growth, harnessing US allies overseas and passing big-ticket infrastructure and climate change plans. But increasingly, it seems as though the fear of a Trump term may be overwhelming satisfaction with Biden’s achievements.

To temper such worries, Biden used the rally to pivot from questions about his age to try to refocus attention on what he’d actually done in office.

“I keep seeing all those stories about I’m being too old,” he said. “Let me say something. I wasn’t too old to create over 15 million new jobs. To make sure 21 million Americans are insured under the Affordable Care Act. Was I too old to release student debt for nearly 5 million Americans? Too old to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court in the United States of America?”

After the debate, Biden’s every word is under intense scrutiny and risks bolstering a critical narrative about his age and mental acuity after he seared an image of a struggling, president diminished by age in the mind of viewers.

So, one fatalistic statement in the ABC interview about how he’d feel next January if Trump won is likely to inflame concerns of many Democrats about his mindset, his understanding of his situation and what will happen in November.

“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,” Biden said.

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