President Joe Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia on June 27, 2024.

(Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

'The Stakes Could Not Be Higher': Debate Disaster Ignites Calls for Biden to Step Aside

"You're deluded if you believe Joe Biden, at this stage of his life, is the best person Democrats have to offer against Donald Trump, against a fascist," said journalist Mehdi Hasan.

President Joe Biden's disastrous debate performance Thursday evening against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump—an unhinged, would-be authoritarian whose lies were glaring and constant—sent much of the Democratic Party establishment into a spiral of panic and ignited calls for the incumbent to step aside to allow another Democratic candidate to take on the former president in November.

The alarm began to set in just minutes into the CNN-moderated event in Atlanta, with Democratic operatives and lawmakers exchanging despairing texts with reporters and each other after the president declared—after appearing to lose his train of thought—that "we finally beat Medicare," an absurd line that followed his stumbling attempt to explain that the nation's ultra-rich pay far too little in taxes.

"For example, we have a thousand trillionaires in America—I mean billionaires, in America," said Biden, his voice raspy from what his campaign says was a cold. "And what's happening? They're in a situation where they, in fact, pay 8.2% in taxes. If they just paid 24% or 25%, either one of those numbers, they'd raised $500 million—billion dollars, I should say, in a 10-year period."

The beltway access outlet Politicoreported that the text message inboxes of its journalists quickly blew up with expressions of dismay from Democratic lawmakers and the names of potential options to replace the 81-year-old incumbent, who cruised through the primary process without a serious challenge.

"I picked the wrong day to stop sniffing glue," an unnamed member of the House Democratic caucus wrote to Politico. An anonymous Democratic insider told the outlet that they believe "there are short lists being made" for Biden's potential replacement, lists that reportedly include Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

An unnamed Democratic lawmaker toldThe Financial Times that "many House Democrats tonight, representing a wide cross-section of the Democratic caucus, were privately texting one another that Biden needs to announce he's decided not to run for reelection"—a belated conclusion that drew disdain from commentators who have been warning for months that a Biden reelection bid could be calamitous.

"Hilarious to watch elite consensus shift and see all the media folk who knowingly created the Biden 2024 catastrophe now desperately try to maintain credibility by depicting themselves as the courageous voices demanding a course correction when it may already be too late," The Lever's David Sirota wrote Friday morning.

The frenzied discussions of a last-ditch replacement effort spilled over into the editorial pages of major newspapers, panel discussions with former White House officials and ex-lawmakers, and the segments of prominent corporate television shows, including MSNBC's "Morning Joe"—which Biden reportedly watches obsessively.

In a panel discussion following Thursday night's 90-minute debate, CNN national political correspondent John King said that "there is a deep, a wide, and a very aggressive panic in the Democratic Party" that began shortly after the debate kicked off and "continues right now."

"It involves party strategists, it involves elected officials, and it involves fundraisers. They are having conversations about the president's performance, which they think was dismal, which they think will hurt other people down the party in the ticket," said King. "And they're having conversations about what they should do about it. Some of those conversations include should we go to the White House and ask the president to step aside. Other conversations are about should prominent Democrats go public with that call."

Dire concerns about Biden's performance and broader readiness to compete in the November election were amplified by Trump's showing during Thursday night's debate, which further showed that the presumptive Republican candidate poses a grave threat to democracy, the climate, workers, and fundamental rights.

"Tonight put on full display how broken our political system is. Our generation deserves better," Stevie O'Hanlon, communications director for the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said in a statement. "The debate also made it undeniable that a Trump presidency would be a climate catastrophe. When Trump was asked if he would address the climate crisis, he ignored the question completely—because he can't answer it. He has promised oil and gas CEOs that he will expedite drilling permits, hasten fracked gas pipeline approvals, and release 'vast stores' of oil and gas on public lands. In return, they're bankrolling his campaign."

"Biden touted achievements that young people fought hard and long to win: the Civilian Climate Corps and the Inflation Reduction Act. Like in 2020, we will fight like hell to defeat Donald Trump so we have the political conditions to end the fossil fuel era and win a Green New Deal," O'Hanlon added. "But President Biden and the Democratic establishment's choices have made an election against a convicted felon dangerously tight. Young people have offered Democrats the vision, energy, and policy on which to beat Donald Trump. They have turned away from it. If there is to be any chance of beating Trump this November, they must listen to young voters."

"Biden is manifestly not up to the task of combating Trump's lies, vitriol, and neofascism—nor is he capable of articulating a coherent progressive vision capable of galvanizing voters this fall."

It's far from clear that mounting calls for Biden to end his reelection campaign and clear the way for a viable replacement will move Democratic leaders or the White House, which has been adamant that the president will be on the ballot in November even as Democratic voters indicate they would prefer someone else as their nominee.

A Gallup survey released ahead of Thursday's debate showed that just 42% of Democratic voters are pleased with Biden as the nominee and a majority want a different candidate.

But Robert Costa of CBS News reported in the debate's aftermath that unnamed sources close to Biden said there is "zero chance" the president "steps away from running."

Newsom, one of the Democrats most commonly floated as a potential alternative to Biden, came to the president's defense Thursday night, urging the party to rally behind the incumbent.

"You don't turn your back because of one performance," Newsom said. "What kind of party does that?"

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) also stood by the president, telling reporters on Friday that he should not drop out of the race even as one unnamed House Democrat—described as an "outspoken defender" of Biden—toldPolitico's Jonathan Martin that Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) should seriously consider a "combined effort" to convince the incumbent to step aside.

"The movement to convince Biden to not run is real," the lawmaker said.

However, Martin noted, "many top party officials" feel that "Biden can't be persuaded let alone pressured."

"One Democratic governor called the debate 'beyond bad,' but said it was 'too late' to nominate a new standard bearer," Martin reported.

But analysts argued Thursday's debacle solidified the case that a Biden candidacy is untenable—and could gift Trump and his far-right allies another four years in power, which they're planning to use to unleash a massive assault on reproductive rights, public education, immigrants, environmental regulations, and more.

"I'm not saying that Joe Biden is going to lose the presidential election because of tonight's debate. The race is still ridiculously too close to call at this point," saidZeteo's Mehdi Hasan, a former MSNBC host. "But it's not looking good. And what I am saying is that you're deluded if you believe Joe Biden, at this stage of his life, is the best person Democrats have to offer against Donald Trump, against a fascist."

"Small-d American democracy, if it is to survive, needs Democrats—big-d Democrats—to put their big boy pants on and get their act together," Hasan added.

After acknowledging that "a comatose Joe Biden would make a better president than Donald Trump," Vox's Eric Levitz wrote Thursday that even though "there is no way for the Democratic Party to deny Biden the nomination at this point," party leaders could "personally lobby the president to step aside and endorse his preferred successor, preempting the hazards of a contested Democratic convention in late August."

"Waiting months to anoint a presumptive nominee would be highly risky. Rallying around Biden's handpicked heir now would be much less so," Levitz added. "The president's policy positions and governing record matter more than his current skills as a rhetorician. But precisely because of how much is substantively at stake in this election, Democrats cannot afford to wager it on American voters changing their minds and deciding that Biden isn't too old for his job after watching him struggle to remember the topics of his own sentences."

RootsAction, a progressive group that urged Biden in late 2022 not to run for reelection and has been calling on the president to step aside for more than a year, said in a statement that Thursday night underscored the incumbent's "severe liabilities as a candidate."

"Biden is manifestly not up to the task of combating Trump's lies, vitriol, and neofascism—nor is he capable of articulating a coherent progressive vision capable of galvanizing voters this fall," the group said. "There is still time before the party convention to decide on a different nominee for the party. Democratic leaders must finally heed the clear preference of Democratic voters and reconsider their backing of Biden's candidacy."

"We need a swift intervention to make Biden voluntarily a one-term president so a Democratic nominee can be up to the job of defeating Trump," RootsAction added. "The stakes could not be higher for the future of the United States, and the world."

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