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Democrats struggle to respond to Biden debate performance

President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.
Gerald Herbert
President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta.

Democrats at all levels of the party spent the hours following the first presidential debate dodging questions about President Biden’s fitness to lead the party and struggling respond to a debate performance that almost uniformly disappointed the party.

Despite widespread concern about Biden’s performance, top leaders are publicly standing by the president.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, asked about Democrats calling for Biden to drop out, said “that’s not my position.” When asked if Democrats can win back House with Biden on ticket he simply responded “yes.”

But the questions that started Thursday night following the debate have not faded.

“Joe Biden had one thing he had to do tonight and he didn't do it.”

“Look, it was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden. I don't think there's any other way to slice it.”

“Biden had a very low bar going into the debate and failed to clear even that bar.”

Those comments following Biden’s debate with former President Donald Trump didn’t come from an array of Biden critics, they came from his prominent supporters: former Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Kate Bedingfied, Biden’s own former White House communications director, and Julian Castro, the Obama-era secretary of Housing and Urban Development, respectively.

Indeed, Democrats are engaging in a collective hand-wringing after Biden’s debate performance last night – a debate that as NPR’s Domenico Montanaro wrote made them wonder “if they’d be better off with someone else as their nominee.” The president looked his age (81), appeared slow, and was unable to articulate a coherent position on even Democrats’ most important issue: abortion.

“Given he delivered the kind of performance Democrats feared, party leaders, strategists and many voters, frankly, had to be wondering during this debate what it would be like if any of a handful of other Democrats were standing on that stage,” Montanaro wrote after the debate. The president “often wasn’t able to show vigor or consistently convey what he wanted to say. He simply couldn’t deliver the kinds of happy-warrior blows with that toothy smile audiences have seen from Biden in years past.”

House Democrats dodge questions and struggle to respond

House Democrats were inundated with questions Friday morning as they arrived at the Capitol in Washington. Several members refused to answer or deferred to communications staff in order to avoid directly addressing Biden’s performance.

Those who did respond, like Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-NY, took a mostly measured approach. Suozzi said one could wish for a “better performance” but said any decisions about Biden’s fitness to lead the party were “above [his] pay grade.”

Others deflected criticism of Biden to focus on the many misleading or outright false statements Trump made during the debate.

Rep. Susan Wild, who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said she will only talk about “the guy who lies.”

Multiple Democrats were reluctant to support a second debate, with many criticizing the format and the rules, saying the campaign should not have agreed to them.

Democrats try to shift expectations and their message

More publicly optimistic Democrats have pointed to then President Obama’s disastrous first debate performance against Mitt Romney, the Republican standard bearer in 2012, and how he recovered from it to win re-election. Others have pointed to candidates who seemingly won the debates, but lost the election.

But as one Democratic strategist told Montanaro via text: “Sometimes the spin don’t spin.”

Still, voters decide elections and Democratic panic notwithstanding, they appear not to have closed their wallets yet.

The Biden campaign said Friday that the 11 p.m.-midnight hour after the debate was “the campaign’s best grassroots fundraising hour since launch, besting its two record-breaking hours earlier this evening. All in all, June 27 was our best grassroots fundraising day since launch.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.