‘It’s Trending Downhill.’ Fight Intensifies Between Biden and His Own Party

7 minute read

Two weeks after Joe Biden’s nightmare debate, the White House is navigating an increasingly turbulent political landscape amid calls from within the Democratic Party for the President to step aside ahead of the 2024 election.

The embattled President faces perhaps the most pivotal moment of his political career as a growing chorus of detractors from within his own party publicly question his ability to lead. Supporters and skeptics alike say he needs a powerful showing at a planned Thursday night appearance at the close of the NATO summit, his first major press conference since the debate. And more defections are likely in the coming hours, as some Democrats have indicated privately that they are waiting until world leaders are gone from Washington to call on Biden to drop out of the race.

“It’s trending downhill,” says one House Democratic lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. "I have a lot of respect for Joe Biden, but it's not looking good."

Ahead of Biden’s Thursday press conference, the White House has been working behind the scenes to try to convince Democrats to stay on board. Biden sent his campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon and advisers Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti to meet with Senate Democrats behind closed doors Thursday afternoon. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who backs Biden as the nominee, told reporters that the Biden team made “a very strong presentation” and described the discussion as “helpful.”

But the meeting didn’t convince everyone: “We have different perspectives about how to proceed to defeat former President Trump,” Hassan said. 

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who expressed concerns about Biden at the top of the ticket but has not yet called on him to step down, told reporters on his way into the meeting: “If they stay as they are, it’s likely Donald Trump will win the election and we'll lose the Senate and lose the House." (Not all Senate Democrats attended the meeting. Two of the most vulnerable members—Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana, both of whom have remained silent publicly about Biden’s electability—skipped it.) 

The fissures within the party widened notably this week after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Biden ally, hinted in a televised interview on Wednesday that the President hadn’t yet made up his mind to run, despite his firm statements that he intends to stay in the race. A dozen congressional Democrats have so far called on Biden, 81, to step aside as the party’s nominee, including Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont who said in an op-ed in the Washington Post Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would be a capable replacement.

The unrest within the party comes on the heels of a disastrous debate performance by Biden, which prompted concerns about his age and mental acuity and led many to fear he has irreparably damaged his prospects for reelection. New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat, said in a social media post Thursday morning that dismissing Biden’s debate performance as one bad night “reflects a continuing pattern of denial and self-delusion.”

Several Democrats in both chambers have told TIME that Biden, a former Senator himself, should engage directly with the caucus to address their concerns. Sen. Tim Kaine, who is up for re-election in Virginia, says he's "talked to people in the White House but not President Biden" and that it would "help" to hear from him directly. 

A majority of Democrats feel that Biden should step aside as the nominee, according to a Washington Post-ABC News-Ipsos poll published on Thursday. The poll also showed that Harris would fare slightly better at the top of the ticket. The disquiet persists among Democrats who fear that Biden's candidacy could spell electoral disaster in November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report this week made the decision to move six key swing states in the Electoral College closer towards Trump, including Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada from toss-up status to leaning Republican. Since the debate, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to roughly 37%, according to a 538 polling average, an all-time low.

Despite mounting pressure, Biden has so far remained defiant, saying that he would step aside only if the “Lord almighty” asks him. Some polls have shown that Biden remains within striking distance of Trump, giving the Biden campaign some optimism that he can recover.

“No one is denying that the debate was a setback. But Joe Biden and this campaign have made it through setbacks before,” wrote O’Malley Dillon and Chavez Rodriguez on Thursday in an internal memo, obtained by TIME, designed to calm freaked out campaign staff. “We are clear eyed about what we need to do to win. And we will win by moving forward, unified as a party, so that every single day between now and election day we focus on defeating Donald Trump.”

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 leader of the Democratic caucus, tells TIME "it would be a good idea" for the Biden campaign to release data showing they have a path to victory. While he isn’t calling on Biden to step aside just yet, he says he went into the meeting with Biden’s advisors hoping to hear a game plan on the path forward.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, tasked with mediating the escalating tensions, has found himself at the center of the storm. He told reporters on Thursday that he doesn’t believe Biden is a liability for vulnerable Democrats up for re-election but also did not answer directly when asked if he believes Biden should drop out of the presidential race. Jeffries said that lawmakers should “engage with their constituents” as they weigh how to move forward. His efforts to appease both sides have underscored the fragility of the Democratic coalition at this extraordinary political moment.

“Hakeem wants to give everybody a chance to be heard, to voice their concerns,” says Rep. Glenn Ivey, a Maryland Democrat who supports Biden as the nominee. “We’re not going to have everybody in agreement.”

As the crisis deepens, the influential Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) quickly emerged as a key defender of Biden, highlighting his long-standing support among Black voters. But that sentiment appeared to shift as the week dragged on, with some members beginning to publicly question Biden’s candidacy. “The Congressional Black Caucus and its members is not a monolith,” Rep. Steven Horsford, a Nevada Democrat and chair of the CBC, told reporters Thursday. “We have always expressed…including to the President of the United States himself, the need to make change, structural change in the campaign, change around strategy, change around how we make investments in spending to do what to win in November.”

The dissenting voices within the Democratic Party are not confined to Capitol Hill. Democratic mega donor and actor George Clooney wrote a damning op-ed in the New York Times this week in which he called on Biden to drop out of the race and lamented the President’s diminished performance compared to previous years.

Biden is clinging to his loyal base within the Democratic coalition. That tension appeared in the Oval Office on Wednesday while he sat with the UK's newly elected Prime Minister Keir Starmer, after an earlier meeting at AFL-CIO headquarters. Biden couldn't avoid questions about the Clooney op-ed, to which he responded by calling on his hardcore base of union support in the country: “AFL-CIO. Go go, go." The comment spoke to a gathering clash within the Democratic party between the donor class and political hive mind Biden calls the "elites," and Biden's political base made up of unions and Black voters.

After talking to Biden on Wednesday, union leaders issued a statement of unanimous support. There had been multiple standing ovations from the roughly 50 union leaders in the room. But while Biden's campaign team was there, two staunch supporters of Biden, president of the United Auto Workers Shawn Fain and president of the Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson, demanded more details from Biden's campaign about their path to prevent Trump from winning the White House in November.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com