Joe Biden on the phone

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the phone while walking from Marine One to board Air Force One before departing McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on June 29, 2024.

(Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Should Biden Go?

It's undeniable that some things have changed since the debate, but one thing hasn't: Our democracy is at stake so anyone who cares about thwarting fascism must do whatever they can to keep Donald Trump from winning the White House.

If you watched the debate between former President Donald Trump and incumbent President Joseph R. Biden last Thursday night and then tuned in to Biden’s appearance a little more than twelve hours later at a rally in North Carolina, you would have been shocked by the contrast. Biden, who has struggled with a stutter throughout his life, has never been a great speaker. But that speech, like his 2024 State of the Union address, was pretty good.

To put it bluntly, Biden seemed like himself. His affect was good. He wasn't stiff or disoriented. He was, of course, using a teleprompter at the rally, whereas at the debate he had to speak spontaneously. In North Carolina, he was speaking to a large enthusiastic crowd, compared to the empty room at the Atlanta debate. As with most politicians, the crowd lifted him up.

Here's part of what Biden said to supporters, in an oblique reference to the previous night’s disaster and Trump’s blizzard of falsehoods:

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious. I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. And I know, like millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down you get back up.”

One of the President’s best qualities is his ability to speak directly to the voters, and it worked. Yet the calls for Biden to relinquish the nomination, which began partway through last Thursday’s debate, continue. Dozens of columnists for major news outlets, and even the New York Times editorial board, urged Biden to step down.

Here is a sample (you might want to skip to the bottom of the list and return to them later):

From the New York Times:

From the Washington Post:

From The New Republic:

From The New Yorker:

From The American Prospect:

From The Atlantic:

From The Bulwark:

From The Nation:

All these pundits seem to agree that the only remaining question is: Who should replace Biden at the top of the ticket.

They are animated by two concerns. First, in light of public perceptions of Biden’s age, they don’t think Biden can beat Trump. Second, they aren’t sure that Biden has the stamina or mental acuity to deal with the stresses of the presidency.

But are these pundits, columnists and editorial writers over-reacting? Do they reflect public opinion – or are they shaping it? Will the Democratic leadership—the big donors, as well as Biden and his family, be able to resist this wave of disapproval—even if they think it wiser to stay the course?

Perhaps the pundits overestimate how much damage was done on Thursday night and do not give Biden’s voters enough credit for understanding how dishonest and deranged Trump is

Let’s start with the down side. Thursday night’s optics were obviously terrible for Biden. Although Trump lied nonstop, he was forceful and energetic, animated by anger and a thirst for revenge. In other words, Trump is a good television performer. Biden wasn’t. He spoke honestly, but his halting speech and his confusion, particularly in the early minutes of the debate, sometimes made it difficult to know exactly what he was saying. Biden threw some sharp punches, but most didn't land well.

If he chooses to stay in the race, Biden and his team can’t simply put this dismal debate performance behind them. The Trump campaign will use clips of his many terrible moments on stage in TV and social media ads. Those clips will follow Biden from now until November.

The debate may have also exacerbated the enthusiasm gap between Biden and Trump supporters. Trump’s base is smaller, but his followers are a cult of true believers. By contrast, many Democrats, particularly young people, are demoralized by Biden’s performance Thursday night. If Biden stays, most will still vote for him anyway. But are they less likely to volunteer in the campaign or work hard to persuade friends, neighbors, and coworkers to do the same?

But wait. Perhaps the pundits overestimate how much damage was done on Thursday night and do not give Biden’s voters enough credit for understanding how dishonest and deranged Trump is. Early research suggests that is so: according to Nate Silver, who has given Trump a slight edge in his modeling for some time, national polling following the debate barely budged.

It might also be useful to recall that voters have been known to distinguish between the appearance of disability and the capacity to do the job. In the fall of 2022, John Fetterman, in recovery from a stroke, performed far worse in his debate against Trump-endorsed Dr. Amos Oz for the Senate seat from Pennsylvania. All the pundits said that Fetterman’s campaign in this swing state was over.

Fetterman won the election.

The highest levels of the Democratic Party seem to be betting on voters making a similar decision about Biden. Former president Barack Obama, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries are counseling the President to stay the course. (Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t weighed in yet).

But Biden needs to keep turning in vigorous, sharp performances to allay the fears he raised last week. About 48 million Americans watched Thursday’s debate; by contrast, very few voters watched Biden's speech in North Carolina. Those who want Biden to stay in the race believe he can recover if he can replicate that campaign style in his many personal appearances, and if the Democrats can amplify his deep engagement with national issues via surrogates. Ads that broadcast Biden at his best, including the North Carolina speech, broadcast on local TV and narrowcast on social media in the seven battleground states, will also be key.

The media may also not be giving voters credit for understanding how poorly Trump performed. While CNN failed to fact-check what the candidates said on Thursday night, the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets did so the next day. Both papers made it clear that Trump, bombastic and unhinged throughout Thursday night’s event, lied consistently. "I did not sleep with a porn star" was the most obvious falsehood, since evidence accepted at his recent Manhattan trial shows that he did. But Trump also lied about his own, and Biden's, records as president. He lied about the economy, Ukraine, the pandemic, immigration, and the "unfairness" of the criminal cases against him.

If the Democrats have any chance to defeat Trump, they must keep stressing that Trump lies about everything.

Boldly, the Philadelphia Inquirer a major newspaper in a pivotal swing state, made just that point Sunday morning. “To Serve His Country, Donald Trump Should Leave the Race,” the editors declared. “President Joe Biden’s debate performance was a disaster,” they admitted; and the President’s “disjointed responses and dazed look sparked calls for him to drop out of the presidential race."

But lost in the hand wringing was Donald Trump’s usual bombastic litany of lies, hyperbole, bigotry, ignorance, and fear mongering. His performance demonstrated once again that he is a danger to democracy and unfit for office.

In fact, the debate about the debate is misplaced. The only person who should withdraw from the race is Trump.”

Without saying it, the Inquirer’s editorial board identified the elephant in the press room: Once again, Trump seems to have diverted most of the mainstream media from what it should report. Throughout the campaign, and after the debate, pundits and political reporters have focused on Biden’s age (and Thursday night’s terrible performance), but not Trump’s many mental and physical struggles as well as his long history of lies, his lack of policy ideas, his sociopathic bigotry, his thirst for revenge, and the threat he poses to democracy, peace, and human decency .

During the debate, the moderators failed to hold Trump accountable for any of these things. Here are a few examples of falsehood that are so obvious they did not require fact-checking:

  • Biden explained that he had gotten support for a bi-partisan bill to address immigration at the border and that Trump not only opposed it, but also bullied Congressional Republicans into voting against it. Trump followed with a racist rant about undocumented immigrants, blaming Biden for the problem. Neither moderator intervened to straighten out who was telling the truth and who was lying.
  • Subsequently, Biden accurately claimed credit for dramatically reducing the cost of insulin and for saving the government billions of dollars by allowing Medicare to negotiate and lower the price of key medicines. Trump said it was his idea—and the moderators let him get away with it.
  • Biden expressed his disgust over Trump’s statement about the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that there were “very fine people” on both sides. Even though his comment can easily be found on YouTube, Trump denied he ever said it. Neither CNN moderator corrected the record.

These failures on the part of the CNN moderators are a measure of how much Trump has altered the political media landscape since 2015. Any presidential candidate who must say “I did not have sex with a porn star,” who has been successfully charged with rape in civil court, and who was convicted on 34 criminal charges, with more charges about to be litigated in different courtrooms, should automatically be eliminated as a serious candidate.

But we’re not in normal times, this is not a normal election, Trump is not a normal candidate, and he has shaped the media environment to his purposes. The media has normalized Trump’s extremism.

To his credit, Biden did point out many of Trump’s lies. He also accused Trump of having “the morals of an alley cat,” a phrase we can expect to see reappear throughout the campaign. Unfortunately, however, the mainstream media have treated this contest not as if character mattered, but as an election between two old guys with different personalities and different views on policy issues.

Biden's accomplishments have improved the lives of most Americans. In contrast, Trump’s four years in office were filled with chaos and ineptitude.

This means that the media rarely report the substance of what each candidate has, and has not, accomplished; what they will and will not do; and whether these plans are realistic and responsive to what voters need. For example, despite overwhelming obstacles, Biden’s presidency has been a major success on a wide range of issues. He got stuff done. He paid attention to policy. Biden's accomplishments have improved the lives of most Americans. In contrast, Trump’s four years in office were filled with chaos and ineptitude. Despite having a Republican majority in both Houses, he couldn’t work with Congress to repeal Obamacare, one of the signature promises of his 2016 campaign.

Yet despite these stark differences, the media is wedded to what they consider to be the conventions of “objective” journalism. They insist on reporting “both sides,” even though one of those sides lacks truth or substance. They focus on the horserace aspects of the campaign: polls, money, and endorsements. By covering his rallies and press conferences, they give Trump a free platform to spew his lies, his bigotry, and his sociopathic narcissism.

In other words, the media is not reporting this election as what it is: an existential battle between democracy and fascism.

What happens in the coming weeks as the Democratic Party grapples with fallout from the debate will be a test of how influential the chattering class is. In the hours after the CNN cameras shut off, columnists, pundits, and list-serve commentators demanded that Biden should drop out of the race and urged his wife Jill and close advisors to push him to do so. The “Biden must get out of the race” chorus is now loud and growing.

The media narrative has shifted abruptly to the assumption that Biden should be replaced, and the only question that remains is: by whom? Some pundits believe that the nomination should be decided by a free-for-all at the Democratic National Convention in August. But most think that waiting that long would be a huge mistake, and that Biden should step back and endorse Vice President Kamala Harris.

Harris certainly has her strengths. She can claim partial credit for the successes of the Biden-Harris administration. She is likely to increase turnout among female, Black, and perhaps younger, voters. Harris can inherit the money raised by the Biden campaign, whereas other candidates would have to start fundraising from scratch. If Trump were willing to debate her on national TV (an unlikely prospect), she would beat him decisively. She’s already been vetted in a national campaign.

The media narrative has shifted abruptly to the assumption that Biden should be replaced, and the only question that remains is: by whom?

Yet, Harris has little support among independent voters, who will be crucial if the Democrats are to win, while racism and sexism, even among committed Democrats, is a persistent problem. Harris has also supported Biden’s stances on Israel and Gaza, including his unsuccessful effort to orchestrate a cease-fire, and this could hurt her among young and progressive voters.

But there are excellent arguments for not asking Biden to step back, because one thing about this election hasn't changed, and that may be what the lack of change in the polling reflects: about 90% to 95% of the electorate, including those who watched the debate, have already made up their minds. Biden’s poor performance in the debate seems not to have changed that, even though Trump was said to have “won.”

So, let's be clear. Whomever the Democrats’ presidential candidate is, the election will be decided by between 5,000 to 50,000 people in each of the following seven battleground states: Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. These numbers include Democratic-leaning voters, particularly Black and Latino voters, and young voters (who may decide not to vote or who might cast ballots for RFK Jr, Jill Stein, or Cornel West as a "protest"); and independent swing voters, including some who reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016, and perhaps even 2020, but are fed up with him now. These are the voters any Democratic candidate must persuade and turnout at this point.

In the coming days, Biden and his close advisors must ask some key questions: Can they persuade and turnout these battleground state voters by practicing micro, retail politics? Did Biden’s debate debacle make a difference to these key voters? And if so, are they more likely to vote for Vice President Kamala Harris, or another candidate, than Biden?

One thing hasn’t changed: Our democracy is at stake so anyone who cares about thwarting fascism needs to stop whining and do whatever they can to keep Donald Trump from winning the White House, regardless who is at the top of the Democratic ticket.

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