Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Democrats’ panic over Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance is turning to anger at the president’s family and close circle of advisers for concealing his condition and their unwillingness to countenance his exit from White House race.

Interviews with party donors, consultants and operatives since Thursday’s debate have revealed a growing belief that Biden is no longer fit to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency and should make way for a younger candidate.

The same people have also expressed exasperation that first lady Jill Biden, the president’s sister Valerie Biden Owens and a group of aides with the most influence over the president have refused to push for his withdrawal, leaving the party in crisis as it tries to halt Trump’s re-election bid.

“There seems to be a level of anger that the inner circle has been keeping things from all of us,” a veteran Democratic operative said, noting that many in the party were irritated that the Biden team had not been more transparent about the president’s weakened state. 

“People want to make sure that . . . the president and his team are being candid with us about his condition, that this was a real anomaly and not just the way he is these days,” Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic senator from Rhode Island, told a local television station on Monday.

One person familiar with the situation said some of the intelligence officials who give Biden his daily intelligence briefing had noticed his decline as early as last year, undermining claims from White House and campaign political figures about the president’s mental acuity.

“Who really enabled this to go on for a year? Was it the staff? Was it the family?” asked one consultant who advises several large, New York-based Democratic donors. “I think they all deserve blame.”

Another consultant accused Biden’s political advisers of “malpractice” for allowing him to debate Trump in his diminished state. One Democratic mega donor said the president’s reluctance to step down was “selfish”.

Such sentiments have so far largely been aired only in private among party lawmakers, donors and officials. Among those who wished Biden would withdraw, many hoped he would do so of his own accord if given time. A shift in opinion polls in the coming days could provide a nudge, they added. 

But if Biden thought he was being forced out, then a politician renowned for his stubbornness could become intransigent, several warned.

“He honestly believes that he is the person best positioned to beat Trump,” said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Senator Ted Kennedy. “No one except for his wife, and or his sister, can convince him otherwise.”

One Democratic operative described the situation as “the hardest case of taking the keys away from dad — ever”.

Biden was due to return to the White House on Monday evening after huddling with his family at Camp David for the past two days to discuss his campaign. They have given no indication he is ready to quit. Speaking to Vogue magazine on Sunday, Jill Biden said the family “will not let those 90 minutes define the four years he’s been president. We will continue to fight.”

Some donors remain in favour of his candidacy. Joseph Power, an attorney and major donor, said any exit decision should be Biden’s alone. “He has wisdom times a hundred compared to his opponent,” said Power. “He’s run a wonderful presidency — unlike his opponent.”

Charles Myers, chair of Signum Global Advisors, said he remained “all-in on Biden”. He attended a Biden fundraiser on Friday in New York and said the president was “sharp” and called a conversation with him “incredibly reassuring”.

But other attendees at the New York fundraiser said they were not swayed by the president’s performance at that event and another in New Jersey, in part because the president spoke with the help of a teleprompter and had limited interaction with guests.

“You can’t run the country with a teleprompter,” said an adviser to a big Biden donor. 

Several Democrats said if Biden were to repair any damage, he needed to shed the protection of his aides and the first lady to prove his acuity at public events such as press conferences and town hall meetings with voters.

“He has got to show that he is completely unafraid. They have got to get him completely out of the bunker,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic Third Way think-tank.

But for now Jill Biden, the president’s wife of 47 years and his closest confidante, is drawing some of the anger in the party. At a post-debate rally on Thursday night she praised her husband’s performance, saying: “Joe, you did such a great job. You answered all the questions.”

Several people said they believed the first lady had become attached to the White House and its trappings. One Democratic consultant likened her to Edith Wilson, the first lady who took charge of the White House after president Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919.

Her image as a down-to-earth school teacher was undercut by the publication on Monday of the latest issue of Vogue, in which she appears on the cover in a white Ralph Lauren gown beside the quote: “We will decide our future.”

As long as the first lady backs him, others said, it would be difficult for longtime aides — including Anita Dunn, Bob Bauer, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain and Steve Ricchetti — to dissent. Biden stepping aside would also diminish their power.

People familiar with the discussions within the party said frustration and anger were only mounting.

“They’re setting each other on fire,” one Democrat said of the infighting and recriminations. “Perhaps because the core problem is one they cannot fix.” 

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