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Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Biden is seeing a different world than Democrats asking him to step down - The Washington Post

Biden is seeing a different world than other Democrats

Tight crop photo illustration of President Biden's face. Reflected in his aviator glasses is a group of supporters holding pro-Biden signs.
(Illustration by Lucy Naland/The Washington Post; Tom Brenner for The Washington Post; Alex Wroblewski for The Washington Post)

"HARRISBURG, Pa. — President Biden looked out and saw people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his trademark aviator sunglasses. He viewed signs that read, “Women for Biden-Harris.” He heard a crowd chanting, “Four more years! Four more years!” He saw children eating ice cream — and determined he would like some, too.

What he didn’t see is what was happening at that very moment Sunday afternoon, on a call among senior congressional Democrats who were worried about the state of Biden’s campaign: Several expressed dismay and said he should end his reelection bid, adding to a louder chorus of party officials wanting to change course.

Over a span of 72 hours, as Biden campaigned in two key swing states and returned to Washington, what became increasingly clear is just how differently things look to the Democratic standard-bearer than to many in his party.

Where they see polls predicting political calamity, he sees a dead heat. Where they see a rapidly aging man who should sit for cognitive tests, he sees no problem that can’t be fixed with a display of energy and force. Where they see a 90-minute debate that showcased the state of his mental acuity, he sees it simply as a “bad night” as he fended off a jet-lag-induced cold.

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Everyone in the party concedes that it is Biden’s decision — and his alone — whether to continue his reelection bid. But the self-professed congenital optimist now finds himself trying to convince a party that has grown increasingly pessimistic, with an increasing number of Democrats fearful that unless things change, Republicans are poised for a landslide victory and Donald Trump is headed for the White House.

But in the eyes of a president who often relishes the mentality of an underdog, he has taken a posture of Joe Biden Against the World (or at least some in his party).

Biden in recent days has held several rallies aimed at showing that he still has the enthusiastic support of the party’s rank-and-file. But those events contrasted starkly with the somber mood outside, creating a challenge for skeptics who are pointing to less-tangible indicators like troubling polls, mounting defections and withheld donations.

While critics may worry that Biden is cocooned from the worst of the news, living in a bit of a Biden Bubble, he has chosen to focus on the positives. He insists that his conversations with top Democrats have been emphatically reassuring: “They’re telling me to stay in the race.”

When presented with countervailing information in an ABC news interview or during exchanges with reporters — that Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) had expressed concern and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) was trying to gather worried senators to talk to him about withdrawing — he batted them away by saying neither Healey nor Warner had spoken to him personally.

By Monday, Biden had become even more emphatic in his view that he was his party’s best option to defeat Trump for a second time. He sent a lengthy letter to congressional Democrats stating bluntly, “I am firmly committed to staying in this race, to running this race to the end.” He joined a call with his top donors, telling them: “The Democratic Party has spoken. The Democratic nominee is me.”

He also told the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was irked by the chattering class — “I’m getting so frustrated by the elites” — and that he had spent the previous days on the campaign trail on something of a fact-finding mission to determine whether his instinct to stay in the race was correct. The impassioned crowds he saw, he said, showed him that it was.

“I wanted to make sure I was right, that the average voter out there still wanted Joe Biden,” he said. “And I’m confident they do. … I’m not going anywhere.”

On Sunday, when the political talk shows were filled with speculation on whether — when? — Biden would exit the race, he entered Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia and saw a boisterous congregation cheering his name. He heard a pastor adamant about his support for his campaign, noting that the president was sitting next to a 91-year-old bishop (“Don’t let anyone talk about your age. You’re a young whippersnapper”), and comparing him to his biblical namesake who upended expectations (“Never count Joseph out!”).

“If Joseph could get out of the pit! If Jesus could get out of the pit! President Biden is coming back!” the pastor, Louis Felton, shouted. “He’s a comeback kid. He’s a fighter. He’s a champion. He’s a winner. Hallelujah!”

The president swayed to the music, lifting his arms above his head, and listened as a member of the congregation offered up a prayer, saying, “Touch his mind, O God, his body; rejuvenate him and his spirit, O God — bless him and give him direction.”

Two days earlier, Biden had said divine intervention would be needed to get him to change his mind on his candidacy — “If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race.” But in the message that came from the church pulpit, the divine had a different agenda.

“God knew President Biden needs some love,” Felton said. “And God sent him here today so that we can show him.”

The congregation stood, clapping and cheering. The president sat, smiling and tapping his heart.

After greeting members of the congregation after the service, posing for selfies and talking about his loan forgiveness program, Biden visited a campaign office and greeted volunteers. He told them he’d been getting large crowds.

“We need Dark Brandon back,” said one woman, referring to a meme that depicted Biden as a superhero and prompted an image the campaign has used for merchandise.

“Dark Brandon is coming back,” the president said.

By Sunday afternoon, the president had arrived at a courtyard filled with several hundred supporters who had been listening to music, playing cornhole and eating barbecue. His remarks were brief and, at times, meandering before he handed the microphone to Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who has been one of his most vociferous supporters in recent days.

“I’m about to point to the only person that’s ever kicked Trump’s a-- in an election right now,” Fetterman said, motioning at the president. “Humiliated Trump. Broke him. And he had to lie about it.”

Biden spoke for six minutes, but then he lingered for almost an hour afterward.

He kissed foreheads, grabbed shoulders and talked one-on-one to several attendees. At one point he removed his jacket and took a long gulp of what appeared to be orange Gatorade. Though more Democrats are questioning whether he should stay in the race, the rope-line affirmations are sending the opposite message.

Even as the past few days have seemed to reassure Biden, buoyed by crowds cheering him on and the more intimate interactions that he was known for earlier in his career, there are also signs of problems that could portend a battle ahead.

His sometimes halting speaking patterns have continued. And while he was warmly cheered on Friday by a crowd at a middle school gymnasium in Madison, Wis., a number of voters said in interviews that they’d come to see him because they were worried about his health and wanted him to drop out.

And while the church crowd was enthusiastic — praying for him, locking arms with him, and chanting “four more years!” — a number of the pews were empty.

Yet at the time congressional Democrats on Sunday were expressing their concerns on a private call with House leaders, the president’s mind was elsewhere, focused on much lighter subjects.

“Folks, with your permission, I’m going to find out whether you have any ice cream,” he said. “You know, isn’t it really dull when you have a president who is known for two things — Ray-Ban sunglasses and chocolate chip ice cream?”

Biden is seeing a different world than Democrats asking him to step down - The Washington Post

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