President Biden Returns To White House

U.S. President Joe Biden returns to the White House with first lady Jill Biden on July 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. Members of Congress return to Washington this week as pressure for Biden to withdraw as the Democratic nominee for the presidency continues to mount.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Fate of American Democracy May Rest on This Question: Can Joe Biden Get Over Himself?

The president must come to terms with his own human limits, recognize the perilous state of his campaign, and put party and country above his own ego.

President Joe Biden’s taped interview last Friday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos was intended to demonstrate his acuity and to stanch the snowballing calls for him to step aside after his embarrassing “debate” performance.

He did not babble incoherently, as he did during the debate. He tried to stick to talking points (“I just created 250,000 jobs,” as if he were Jeannie in “I Dream of Jeannie” and just made it happen by blinking his eyes). But he did not really engage the questions about his fitness, except to accentuate them.

He was not sure whether he had watched the debate. But he was certain that his first term as president had not worn him down one bit, that he is as mentally sharp as ever, and that he is the only person who can beat Trump and lead the country forward. He was certain that his very low approval ratings and poll numbers were false, and his candidacy is a strong as ever, data be damned.

Only “the Lord Almighty” could convince him otherwise, regardless of how many other mere mortals might try. In short, he demonstrated hubris—practically declaring that “I alone can fix it!”--but not a very firm grip on reality. The interview did nothing to quiet the concerns of the many Democrats who have been willing to support him for over a year in spite of real reservations, but who can no longer consider him a strong candidate to either win the election or hold the office of president for another four years.

Democracy is on the line, and there is still time for democratic politicking within the Democratic Party to generate a strong presidential ticket.

Worse than his stubbornness was his cluelessness about his own manifest frailties and the extent to which his own actions had made him look too weak and vulnerable to too many voters and too many Democrats.

This was even clearer at the rally he held in Madison, Wisconsin last Friday immediately before the taped interview, where he declared: “I’m the nominee of the Democratic Party... despite the fact that some folks don’t care who you voted for, well, guess what, they’re trying to push me out of the race. Well let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race. I will beat Donald Trump. I will beat him again in 2020 [shouts]... Oh by the way, we’re going to do it again in 2024.”

When Biden says “they’re trying to push me out of the race,” the “they” are his colleagues, allies and supporters, who have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s authoritarianism since 2016, who strongly supported him in 2020, and who share the conviction that the Democrats cannot afford to lose in November. But Biden talks about “them” as if they are his opponents or enemies who have never respected him and have always wanted to see him fail. Poor Scranton Joe. Always needing to defy the odds and come from behind and prove himself to the world.

This is worse than dishonest. It is a kind of politics-by-demonization that is one of the worst features of Trumpism, and one of the reasons why Democrats want so desperately to keep Trump out of the White House.

Today, Biden has doubled down even more stubbornly, in a letter to House Democrats and an angry 15-minute phone “interview” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” denouncing Democratic critics as if they are opponents who stand between him and “the people” who voted for him in the Democratic primaries—the very same low-turnout primaries in which Biden was challenged by no one but Dean Phillips and debated no one, in large part because his allies made it clear than primary competition would be quashed.

Biden, in short, is acting like an angry populist.

He is treating the Democratic Party as if it were a vehicle of his candidacy and his ego rather than an organization committed to values and a platform and candidates up and down the ballot across 50 states. He is completely disregarding the very strong reason why so many Democrats and progressives have sought to persuade him to drop out, which is very different than trying to “force” him out: because he was trailing before and it now looks like he simply cannot win.

Even worse than his stubbornness towards Democratic critics is his cluelessness about his MAGA Republican opponents.

For the truth is that it is only Democrats who want to see him leave the race. Republican leaders, and Trump campaign strategists, want him to stay, and Trump has very obviously been more or less silent in recent days. Trump has been happy to stand by and stand down while Biden’s deficiencies become ever more glaring, and the president's stubborn denial alienates many of those Democrats without whose active support he cannot possibly win.

And let's be clear: the party nomination next month is one thing. To win this election, it is not enough that Joe Biden thinks that he alone can defeat Trumpism. It is necessary for leaders and activists and campaign staffs everywhere believe in him strongly and be willing to do the work on the ground to deliver him a victory. Every day that passes in which he shows egomania but not substantial physical energy and real mental sharpness under duress, this becomes less and less likely.

Before leaving the stage in Madison last Friday to the tune of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Biden declared “You think I’m too old to beat Donald Trump? I can hardly wait.”

Wait for what? The game has long been on. He was losing at halftime, his debate performance was zombie-like, and he is losing even bigger now. The real fight lies ahead, and he is saying and doing nothing to demonstrate that he has the stamina, the rhetorical acuity, or the credibility to come back from far behind. And the fate of democracy itself is at stake. Right?

Biden is living in the past. It’s not about what he did in 2020 or 2022. It’s about whether he can effectively surmount enormous obstacles now and persuade key voters that he—faltering at the age of 81—can thrive in the Oval Office at age 84 or age 86. Last week he promised to do better by working fewer hours and getting more sleep. He actually said that. And yet he continues to insists that he is the man of the hour and the leader of the future.

Biden has worked very hard for many years, and he has done well. He deserves to work much less, and to get much more sleep. And he needs to pass the torch to someone—I think that Kamala Harris is the only reasonable choice—who has the energy and sharpness to campaign vigorously to beat Trump head on, and to meet the challenges and the stresses of the next four years with real energy.

Is Biden preferable to Trump?

Of course!

His liberal and progressive critics have been saying this for years, and we will spend the months leading to November saying it again if he obtains the formal nomination at the party’s convention in Chicago.

Anyone is preferable to Trump.

But Biden and his acolytes and the dwindling number of party faithful are asking us to believe that a very worn octogenarian who increasingly looks like a mannequin is capable of running a vigorous campaign, beating an increasingly empowered Trump, and governing for another four years.

This simply begs credulity.

Democracy is on the line, and there is still time for democratic politicking within the Democratic Party to generate a strong presidential ticket.

But this will require Biden to come to terms with his own human limits, recognize the perilous state of his campaign, and put party and country above his own ego.

Can Joe Biden get over himself?

The fate of American democracy may rest on the answer. And I cannot imagine a more terrifying political situation.

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