Biden’s Push Appears to Stave off Defections and Win New Backing

Julia Nikhinson for The Washington Post
Hill Democrats are torn about what to do regarding President Biden.

President Biden won new support for his reelection bid Monday and headed off further defections among Democratic lawmakers as Congress returned to Capitol Hill, at least temporarily stemming a tide of dissent at the outset of what could be a pivotal week in his fight for political survival.

From influential liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to figures such as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to erstwhile critics such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, a parade of Democrats embraced Biden’s reelection run, a sharp reversal after a stretch when every day seemed to bring another defection.

“He’s been the best president of my lifetime, and we have his back,” said Omar, who has blasted Biden’s Middle East policy. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a centrist, said Biden should remain the nominee, calling him “a president who has delivered for the American people in a significant way.”

Reps. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), chair and vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has 39 members, issued a statement that also appeared aimed at declaring support, saying, “We stand with President Biden and Vice President Harris.”

The 60-member CBC is a particularly pivotal group, given the importance of Black voters to the Democratic Party, and Biden phoned in to a virtual meeting of the group Monday evening. Many CBC members planned to convey to Biden that they would stick by him as they always have, according to people familiar with their thinking.

The crisis facing Biden began after his June 27 debate, when his halting, stumbling performance sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, prompting many Democrats to suggest he should step aside from his reelection bid and let another candidate, perhaps Harris, make the run against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Biden’s camp responded sluggishly for several days, but a recent frenzy of activity by the president – holding rallies, phoning lawmakers, giving interviews – seems to at least have slowed the tide of defections.

Still, it was clear Monday that the president had not yet satisfied many in his party or quashed calls for him to rethink his candidacy.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a senior member of Democratic Senate leadership, said in a statement that Biden must do more to show he is the best candidate to take on Trump.

“We need to see a much more forceful and energetic candidate on the campaign trail in the very near future in order for him to convince voters he is up to the job,” Murray said. “At this critical time for our country, President Biden must seriously consider the best way to preserve his incredible legacy and secure it for the future.”

Similarly, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said he had heard from constituents from across his state about Biden’s debate performance, wondering whether it was simply a bad night or a reflection of a more serious condition. He said he still believed that Democratic congressional candidates were positioned to keep control of the Senate and win back the House.

“What we need out of our candidate who’s running for the presidency is the same thing these guys are doing, which is to be out there day and night, every single day, relentlessly and passionately running against Donald Trump,” Bennet said.

But unlike in recent days, Biden also managed to secure support from key quarters, including influential members of the “squad,” the far-left group of progressives in the House. Ocasio-Cortez said she spoke with Biden over the weekend, and she emphasized she was not looking for a replacement.

“He made clear then, and he has made clear since, that he is in this race,” she said. “The matter is closed.”

The reactions came after Biden had been saying forcefully for several days, including Monday morning, that he had no intention of ending his candidacy. Hours before the meeting with the CBC, Biden sent a letter to congressional Democrats warning that any efforts to persuade him to step aside were a distraction from the critical mission of defeating Trump.

“The question of how to move forward has been well-aired for more than a week now. And it’s time for it to end,” he wrote. “We have one job. And that is to defeat Donald Trump. We have 42 days to the Democratic convention and 119 days to the general election. Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us.”

Biden also called in to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday morning, taking a populist tone as he hit back against the laundry list of prominent commentators who have urged him to exit the race. “I don’t care what those big names think,” he said. “They were wrong in 2020. They were wrong in 2022 about the red wave. They are wrong in 2024.”

Biden made similar arguments in a call with some of his major donors, stressing that he won millions of votes in the Democratic primaries this year. “We’re done talking about the debate,” he said, according to a donor on the call, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

One donor on the call said Biden was more forceful than he had been in previous days. “Donors are saying, ‘Better late than never,’” the person said, adding that they wished the president had made such calls to reassure supporters in the days immediately after the debate.

Biden also called 20 Democrats last week – including Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.) – to reassure Democrats that he is hearing their concerns, according to a campaign official. He is expected to reach out to more in coming days.

Crucially, both Schumer and Jeffries said Monday that they remain fully behind the president. But Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, predicted the issue would be “thoroughly discussed” in Democrats’ meetings and said there were obvious divisions among Senate Democrats.

“I’ve talked to a dozen of my colleagues, and they have differing views,” he added.

That echoed the tenor of a call that Biden held on Saturday with the congressional co-chairs of his campaign. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said he read Biden two texts, including one from a major donor who asked Coons to persuade Biden to drop out. People on the call also suggested Biden hold more news conferences, rallies and town halls, according to people familiar with the event, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

As of Sunday, nine House Democrats – four privately and five publicly – had called for Biden to exit the race.

Biden could face more scrutiny this week than at any time since the debate. Beyond the pressure from Capitol Hill, the president is hosting the 75th annual NATO summit in Washington, which European leaders had expected to be a largely celebratory event.

Instead, they will be monitoring Biden’s appearance and condition after the debate heightened anxieties about the prospect of a second Trump term, which many NATO leaders dread. Biden is scheduled to give a speech about the alliance on Tuesday, meet with several heads of state and, in his most anticipated event, hold a solo news conference Thursday – an event many Democrats are anxiously awaiting to see if Biden is able to allay concerns that he is unable to handle unscripted events.

Some Democrats are waiting to see how Biden fares on the campaign trail and at the NATO summit before deciding whether to call publicly for him to end his reelection bid. Others say privately that they already consider Biden’s ramped-up schedule – and his effort to show his determination to fight – too little, too late.

One House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid analysis, said some Democrats were beginning to accept that Biden was dug in and unlikely to drop out of the race. This lawmaker said the party’s internal polling is mixed on whether Biden could hurt Democrats’ congressional candidates.

The public calls on Capitol Hill for Biden to step aside have so far come from the House rather than the Senate, and any change in that dynamic would be notable. Behind the scenes, many senators share similar fears that Biden no longer has a path forward, according to multiple senators and aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the dynamics freely.

Last week, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) sought to form a group that would go to the White House and seek the president’s exit. That plan appeared to be scrapped after reporting about the effort scrambled the plan, one senator said. Instead, Democratic senators are likely to discuss Biden’s prospects at their regularly scheduled Tuesday lunch.

On Friday, Biden told ABC News that only “the Lord Almighty” could persuade him to change his mind and drop out of the race. That prompted some pushback from congressional Democrats over the weekend.

“I certainly respect the Lord, but this is a real-world decision for him and for everyday Democratic senators and members of Congress,” Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said in an interview Sunday. “As much as we’d like divine intervention, it will elude us. So we have to act.”

In the call to his donors, Biden said he would focus more on attacking Trump in the weeks ahead. Biden and Trump are scheduled to debate again Sept. 10, less than two months before Election Day.

Not everyone on the call who wanted to ask a question was given a chance, but those who did were largely supportive of the president, the donor said. “He definitely isn’t thinking of dropping out, that’s for sure,” the donor said.

Hanging over the debate among Democrats is their agonizing fear that a second term for Trump would be disastrous for the country, and some hope that anxiety will unify the party.

“The fear of having another Trump presidency, especially given how much more unhinged he has been, is palpable,” said Rep. Deborah Ross (D-N.C.). “And so I think people are going to pull together.”