Biden to meet with Democratic governors and congressional leaders to allay fears over debate performance

The president jokes about falling asleep onstage, alleging fatigue from travel. A congressman from his own party has openly asked him to step down

Biden debate performance
Joe Biden at the White House on July 1.Samuel Corum (EFE)
Miguel Jiménez

It was a “bad night” and he had “a cold.” That is the official version offered by the White House about what happened on Thursday at the debate that pitted President Joe Biden against his predecessor, Donald Trump. The White House spokesperson, Karine Jean-Pierre, said at a press briefing on Tuesday that “we really want to turn the page on this.” But it is not going to be that simple. In a first, a Democratic congressman has openly called for Biden to step aside from the race after the disastrous debate. Democratic governors are worried and the White House on Tuesday said that the president would meet with top congressional leaders, and on Wednesday would host a meeting with Democratic governors to try to ease their concerns about his physical and mental capacity.

Biden kept up his damage control tour on Tuesday, adding a new excuse to his arguments: fatigue from international travel in the weeks prior to the debate. It sounds unconvincing, taking into account that he spent almost a week locked up at Camp David, in Maryland, preparing for the debate. At a fundraiser in Virginia on Tuesday, he said that “I wasn’t very smart. I decided to travel around the world a couple of times” before the face-off. He said he “didn’t listen to my staff” and joked that he “fell asleep on stage” during the debate.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who showed support for the president, admitted on Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC that “it is a legitimate question” whether Biden’s performance on Thursday was just “an episode or is this a condition.” Whether Biden had, as Jean-Pierre claims, a bad night, or whether the problem is much deeper, as the White House keeps denying. But people are becoming increasingly suspicious. Pelosi recommended that the president grant interviews to “serious journalists.” As part of the campaign to restore his public image, Biden will give an interview to ABC on Friday, where he hopes to demonstrate that he is fit to serve.

Many members of Congress have admitted, even in public, that the president performed poorly in the debate. But what none of them had done until this Tuesday is to openly ask their leader to step down. Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, who is serving his 15th term and who is running for re-election again in November, said Biden should “make the painful and difficult decision” to withdraw, citing the president’s inability to “effectively defend his many accomplishments” in the debate.

Doggett even use a historical comparison that Democrats have been avoiding like the plague. “I represent the heart of a congressional district once represented by Lyndon Johnson. Under very different circumstances, he made the painful decision to withdraw. President Biden should do the same.” Lyndon Johnson is one of the few presidents who did not run for re-election. He gave up the race in 1968, and the Democratic convention held in August of that year produced a candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who later failed against Richard Nixon.

A difficult decision

“My decision to make these strong reservations public is not done lightly nor does it in any way diminish my respect for all that President Biden has achieved,” Doggett said. “Recognizing that, unlike Trump, President Biden’s first commitment has always been to our country, not himself, I am hopeful that he will make the painful and difficult decision to withdraw. I respectfully call on him to do so.”

A bad result in the presidential elections is usually also reflected in the results of the legislative elections. On November 5, the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 senators are being renewed. There is a good chance that the Democrats, who control the upper house by a majority of 51 to 49, counting the independents, will lose their control. Among the senators whose seats are up for renewal in November there are 24 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

While Republicans are competing in favorable constituencies, Democrats are defending seats they won in areas that are now conservative. They risk losing their seats in West Virginia, Ohio and Montana, and to a lesser extent also in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. A hypothetical bad Democratic result weighed down by Biden would also help the Republicans to renew their majority in the House of Representatives.

Gubernatorial elections are also being held in 11 states, although in this case eight Republicans and only three Democrats’ positions are at stake. Among the latter, those from the State of Washington and Delaware are almost guaranteed their re-election, but the governor of North Carolina is in danger. On the other hand, of the eight Republican states, the Democrats have aspirations of reconquering New Hampshire.

Democratic governors are concerned about what they saw in the debate. On Monday they met by videoconference and agreed to make an appointment with the president, with whom they will have a partly in-person and partly virtual meeting on Wednesday. It is part of the display of activity with which the president wants to counteract the bad impression left by last week’s debate.

Biden will have the meeting with the governors, then give an interview to ABC, travel to Wisconsin on Friday and to Philadelphia on Sunday for campaign events. He will also hold a press conference during next week’s NATO summit in Washington.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre at the press conference this Tuesday.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre at the press conference this Tuesday.Elizabeth Frantz (REUTERS)

Karine Jean-Pierre’s press briefing on Tuesday, the first one held at the White House since the debate, had almost one single theme. The spokesperson faced a barrage of questions about the president’s mental acuity, including some direct questions about whether he suffers from dementia or some type of degenerative disease. “No. And I hope you’re asking the other guy the same exact question,” Jean-Pierre replied.

The spokesperson admitted that the media and the American people have the right to wonder about the president’s mental and physical fitness, but rejected that he must undergo cognitive tests or that he must provide additional information about his health beyond the medical report that he makes public every year. “We’re going to get out there, across the country. Americans are going to see him for themselves,” said Jean-Pierre.

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