Biden acknowledges weak debate performance as Democratic questions swirl over whether he’ll stay in the presidential race


President Joe Biden’s campaign insisted Friday he will not drop out of the 2024 race, but fractures between those in the president’s orbit insisting on trudging forward and the broader Democratic world seeking a last-minute change were growing after Biden’s disastrous debate performance.

Biden acknowledged the weak performance while giving a much more animated speech in North Carolina on Friday, saying, “I know I’m not a young man. I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t talk 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 what millions of Americans know: When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

From the West Wing to Wilmington, Biden advisers spent Friday morning calling Democratic members of Congress, donors and other key supporters in hopes of allaying some of the widespread panic about the debate with former President Donald Trump on CNN Thursday night.

Biden’s performance — rife with a raspy voice, an often mouth-agape facial expression and one painful moment in which the president lost his train of thought and suddenly stopped speaking — laid bare the potential political costs of nominating the oldest-ever president for a second term.

Asked whether Biden would exit the race, Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster responded: “No.”

“There’s no basis for that,” one Biden adviser also told CNN Friday morning. “There’s nothing that voters have indicated that they agree with that.”

Despite anxiety from some donors, campaign sources highlighted a record $14 million 24-hour fundraising haul on Thursday, which comes amid signs that Biden’s fundraising edge is slipping. The campaign set its new hourly fundraising record during the 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. hour Thursday following the debate, but a campaign official declined to provide a dollar amount.

The projections of confidence coming from Biden’s White House and reelection campaign come amid questions even Biden allies are raising over whether anyone with the president’s ear will seek to convince him to suspend his campaign.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

President Joe Biden speaks at a post-debate campaign rally on June 28, 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Democratic congressional leaders are not planning a direct intervention with Biden, according to multiple Democratic sources. Instead, they plan to focus on House and Senate races as they let the debate’s dust settle with the public, and then assess the strength of Biden’s campaign in the weeks ahead.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Friday morning he is standing by Biden — but he added that he is waiting to hear from Biden at a North Carolina campaign rally later Friday.

“I’m going to reserve comment about anything relative to where we are at this moment, other than to say I stand behind the ticket,” Jeffries said.

Even as calls for Biden to consider dropping out of the race grew on Friday, Democratic operatives and elected officials alike appeared largely resigned to the reality that him doing so was, at best, a remote possibility — and most likely a delusional fantasy.

One significant reason: the unequivocal support from Biden’s famously impenetrable innermost circle of advisers.

One Biden aide argued that while the president is deeply insulated by the tight circle of aides who prepped him at Camp David, the buck ultimately stops with him.

“The people around him aren’t yes-men. All of them know how to tell him no. But once he makes a decision, they are really good at staying united,” the aide said.

For instance, there wasn’t agreement on Biden’s decision to seek a second term, “but once he decides, he decides,” and the wagons are circled.

“The most likely scenario is that nothing f**king changes, right? Because why would it?” said one Democratic operative.

The operative pointed the finger at the president’s top advisers for allowing Biden to take the debate stage while knowing what they must have known.

“It’s not like Biden’s inner circle didn’t know this before last night. It’s not like all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow. He’s showing some signs of age,’” the operative said.

One persistent gripe among Biden supporters was why his advisers did not think to preemptively share the fact that the president had been battling a cold, leading to Biden sounding raspy and soft-spoken — and as a result, at times unintelligible — on the debate stage.

One Democratic congressman said “everyone” in the party was privately buzzing about whether to try to convince the president to drop out, despite party leaders publicly standing by Biden. But the “question is — who will do something about it?” they said.

The New York Times Editorial Board on Friday called for Biden to withdraw from the race, writing, “The greatest public service Mr. Biden can now perform is to announce that he will not continue to run for re-election.” The board said in part that “there is no reason for the party to risk the stability and security of the country by forcing voters to choose between Mr. Trump’s deficiencies and those of Mr. Biden.”

The board, though, wrote that it would still support Biden as its “unequivocal pick” if he remains in the race and against his predecessor.

Biden campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond pushed back later Friday, saying, “The last time Joe Biden lost the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement, it turned out pretty well for him.”

For years at the White House, and for months in Biden’s Wilmington headquarters, anyone but the president’s inner circle has been resigned to the fact that only that insular circle has any real power in the White House. Some aides who traveled to Camp David for debate prep sessions went there knowing they wouldn’t be included in many of the key discussions.

It has led to rising stars leaving the administration and strong recruits passing on jobs. But multiple junior and mid-level aides told CNN they were willing to deal with that and the professional frustration that comes with it as long as they could get Biden to deliver.

Faith in that group has also been dashed by Biden’s performance, quickly turning into fear that the only people who have the power to change up a campaign aren’t up to it themselves. The frustration with the inner circle was growing on Friday after morning calls were led by more junior staffers on the campaign, giving the impression that those in Biden’s inner circle were either failing to come up with clear talking points or distancing themselves from the president’s performance.

A White House official said group text threads were “abysmal” on Friday, with jokes about updating resumes. “Everyone is deflated,” the official said.

One source of frustration, the official said, is that neither chief of staff Jeff Zients nor senior adviser Anita Dunn addressed the staff after Biden’s poor debate showing. Zients and Dunn participated in a morning call with the top 40 division managers in the West Wing and Old Executive Office Building, an official said. Their message was one of staying the course – and they instructed the managers to pass that on to staffers. Many did not.

“The inner circle is used to not having to say anything,” the official said, but “we cannot pretend like yesterday didn’t happen.” CNN has reached out to the White House for comment about the official’s statement.

The Biden campaign will hold an all-staff meeting Friday afternoon, two Biden campaign officials told CNN, part of what they said is a routine pattern of Friday meetings.

Many White House staffers were working from home Friday.

“We’re all already commiserating. No reason to do it at a desk,” the official said.

Tristen Rouse/CNN

A man watches the CNN presidential debate during a watch party at Union Pub in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2024.

Biden still plans to participate in a second presidential debate in September, an adviser told CNN.

That adviser acknowledged the president’s performance in Atlanta was lackluster but said the campaign is committed to highlighting the moments it believes worked for their candidate — and then moving on.

Many Biden campaign and White House staffers, the adviser said, worked for former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, in which Obama turned in a first debate performance that even he described as a “stinker” — and Obama still won reelection.

Obama said Thursday night’s debate didn’t change the fundamentals of the race – even if it was a rough night.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama said in a post on X.

“But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself. Between someone who tells the truth; who knows right from wrong and will give it to the American people straight — and someone who lies through his teeth for his own benefit. Last night didn’t change that, and it’s why so much is at stake in November.”

Biden did not plan to dwell on his own performance, one adviser told CNN, but rather will devote more time to pushing back on Trump’s “extreme positions and series of lies” — work that he struggled to do on stage Thursday night.

“There’s one conversation happening on cable television,” the adviser said, striking a defensive tone when discussing Biden’s shaky debate showing. “There’s another conversation happening with voters in the country.”

A separate adviser said: “Voters are our north star,” pointing to pointing to focus groups and overnight campaign research that found voters in Midwestern battlegrounds responding favorably to some substantive portions of the debate.

But from the White House to campaign headquarters, Biden aides on Friday sent signals of defensive frustration — some directed at their candidate, but most reserved for jittery Democrats and commentators — over the president’s failure to take command of the stage in his first debate with Trump.

A half-dozen aides all dismissed suggestions that Biden was reconsidering seeking a second term. They pointed to a robust travel schedule in the weeks ahead and strong fundraising in the wake of the debate.

Still, one adviser conceded: “We are in a dark place, but we’re moving forward.”

01:01 – Source: CNN

Hear what Joe and Jill Biden said about his debate performance

Meanwhile, multiple Biden advisers complained that they were frustrated by the falsehoods Trump promoted during the debate, including the former president’s attempt to discredit the Charlottesville White nationalist rally and the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

That dynamic, they say, thrust Biden into a fact-checking role and required him, in their view, to spend much of his time on stage on the defensive — rather than employing the attack messaging they spent recent days developing.

Near the end of the debate, one Biden adviser said he was frustrated “that Donald Trump is just making stuff up. Almost everything.”

And another expressed worry that voters would take Trump’s versions of events at face value, acknowledging that Biden was attempting to correct the record in real-time. But Biden still struggled with his performance in those moments.

Biden himself alluded to the challenge following the debate.

“It’s hard to debate a liar,” Biden told patrons at an Atlanta-area Waffle House following the debate. “The New York Times said he lied 26 times. Big lies.”

In the broader pro-Biden and anti-Trump political universe, the panic over Biden’s debate performance was much clearer on Friday morning.

On Wednesday, Republican Adam Kinzinger — the former Illinois congressman and Trump critic who did not seek reelection in 2022 after it became clear his role on the House panel that investigated the January 6, 2021, insurrection would cost him his primary race — made headlines by endorsing Biden.

On Friday morning, Kinzinger retweeted a video of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough — whose show Axios reported Biden regularly watches — suggesting Democrats should consider asking Biden to step aside.

“I think we have to ask the same questions of him that we have asked of Donald Trump since 2016. And that is, if he were CEO and he turned in a performance like that, would any corporation in America, any Fortune 500 corporation in America, keep him on as CEO?” Scarborough said.

Kinzinger also retweeted “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart fuming over the debate. “This cannot be real life. It just can’t,” Stewart said. “We’re America. God.”

The veterans of Obama’s administration who launched the “Pod Save America” series of podcasts popular with liberal listeners also lamented Biden’s performance.

“We have to beat Donald Trump. We have to have a nominee who can do that,” former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau said on X. “And since we haven’t had the convention yet, it would be absurd if Democrats didn’t at least have a serious discussion about whether Joe Biden — who’s a wonderful human being and has been a great president — is up for the job.”

Ben Rhodes, the former Obama deputy national security adviser, said: “Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this.”

On Capitol Hill, some Democrats expressed alarm about Biden’s struggle to deliver clear answers in the debate.

“Joe Biden couldn’t communicate, and Donald Trump lied every time he opened his mouth,” Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig said.

Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider said “yeah” when asked if he was keeping the door open to replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee.

California Rep. Scott Peters called conversations about replacing Biden “premature,” but said he is “open to a conversation about how to win this election.”

“I think everyone is concerned about last night,” Peters told CNN. “So the campaign has got to convince a lot of people that this is a campaign we win.”

However, senior Democrats rallied to Biden’s defense.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “from a performance standpoint, it wasn’t great.  But from a values standpoint, it far outshined” Trump.

“I think that on his worst night his presentation of integrity was  better than the other guy’s dishonesty. To see the Republicans embrace that dishonesty is just stunning. So, no, I have no problems,” she said.

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, a close Biden ally whose endorsement in 2020 was crucial to the president claiming the Democratic nomination, didn’t defend Biden’s showing Thursday night, saying “it was a poor performance,” but argued that in baseball, batters get three strikes.

“That was strike one,” he said, insisting there is no one better to carry the Democratic message this fall.

Retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said he is “very confident” in Biden’s abilities.

“Biden might have had a bad evening, but we don’t want four bad years under Donald Trump. So, on the issues, I thought Joe Biden handled them well. Obviously, we were all looking forward to a more, I guess, energetic approach,” Cardin told reporters in the Capitol.

The more practical problem Democrats face is that even if Biden were to suspend his campaign, the primaries are long over, Biden’s nominal challengers dispatched and the party’s convention in Chicago next month could quickly turn chaotic.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, the popular Democratic executive of perhaps the most important swing state, conceded on CNN Friday that Biden’s debate performance “was not a good look.”

But Shapiro said the debate “doesn’t change the fact that there are very stark, competing differences in this race, and I think what the American people have to do right now is make a decision.”

“The Biden campaign should speak for themselves. You know, no question the president was not his best last night, but we’ve got a long way to go until the election,” Shapiro said.

Another popular Democratic swing-state governor, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, in a statement Friday morning did not directly mention Biden’s debate performance — instead seeking to draw a contrast between Biden and Trump on abortion rights, health care policy and more.

“Joe Biden is running to serve the American people. Donald Trump is running to serve Donald Trump,” Whitmer said. “The difference between Joe Biden’s vision for making sure everyone in America has a fair shot and Donald Trump’s dangerous, self-serving plans will only get sharper as we head toward November.”

CNN’s Betsy Klein, Haley Talbot, Manu Raju, Veronica Stracqualursi, Andrew Millman, Ted Barrett, Lauren Fox, Annie Grayer, Priscilla Alvarez and Brian Rokus contributed to this report.

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