Nancy Pelosi Opens the Door, Subtly, to Replacing Biden

Allison Robbert for The Washington Post
Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday, just minutes before a group of Democrats held their second meeting to discuss President Biden’s candidacy.

Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a very early wake-up call to Washington on Wednesday when she deftly sidestepped a straightforward question during a morning television interview: Should President Biden run for reelection?

In a 10-minute TV appearance on “Morning Joe” at 7:40 a.m., Pelosi – who has a decades-long relationship with the president and still commands the deep respect of her colleagues – left her mark on the biggest political crisis facing the Democratic Party in years.

“It’s up to the president to decide if he is going to run. We’re all encouraging him to make that decision, because time is running short,” the California Democrat said. “He is beloved, he is respected, and people want him to make that decision.”

In those few sentences on a program Biden is known to watch, Pelosi didn’t directly call for Biden to step aside. But she did significantly reframe a delicate but urgent conversation taking place among Capitol Hill lawmakers, Democratic donors, party strategists and voters after Biden’s faltering debate performance two weeks ago raised questions about whether he can beat Donald Trump and serve another term as president.

In a letter to Hill Democrats this week, Biden insisted he is running for reelection. But Pelosi, with subtle precision on morning television, said the president needed to make a “decision.” She was the most high-profile in a slew of Democrats to paint a picture of a president who is deep in thought about whether he should run, even though Biden and his camp contend that there is no other choice on the table.

And she left Hill Democrats mulling whether they might actually have an influence on the course Biden chooses to take with four months left until November.

According to those that have known and watched Pelosi over the past several administrations, she doesn’t operate in a vacuum and she is intentional in her language. Her timing was notable, coming a few days after the president released his letter and one day before a high-stakes Biden news conference, according to Democrats who have worked with and around the former speaker.

Pelosi, who remains in the House even after stepping down as speaker, is “always very deliberate about what she says,” a senior Democratic House aide said.

In the hours after she spoke, a New York member from a competitive district – Rep. Pat Ryan (D) – said he could no longer support Biden, the 12th Democratic House member by the end of the day to urge the president to step aside. New York’s lieutenant governor and former House member, Antonio Delgado, said it was time for a “new leader.” Otherwise, the most prominent voice calling for Biden to exit the race Wednesday was actor George Clooney. One Senate Democrat – Peter Welch (Vt.) – became the first senator to publicly call on Biden to step aside in an op-ed for The Washington Post on Wednesday evening.

“We cannot unsee President Biden’s disastrous debate performance. We cannot ignore or dismiss the valid questions raised since that night,” Welch said.

Pelosi’s TV interview came just minutes before a group of swing-district Democrats was set to hold a second meeting in as many days with House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) to discuss Biden’s candidacy. The most vulnerable House members have only grown more fearful in recent days that Biden will be a drag on their races as new public and internal campaign polling has painted a grim electoral picture for Democrats, depressing their ability to recapture the chamber. Democrats only need to win four seats to reclaim the House majority, but all of their most vulnerable members must win.

Pelosi’s loyalty is to the House and she will act in what is in the House’s best interest, two senior House Democratic aides noted.

Congressional Democrats have been mainly privately wringing their hands about Biden’s debate performance two weeks ago in which he seemed at times lost or unable to finish his sentences. But many have hesitated to publicly urge him to abandon his campaign, waiting – they say – for more polling data, for the NATO summit in Washington this week to end and to see how Biden performs in a Thursday evening news conference.

Hill leaders – including Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) – have stated that they are behind Biden but said little else despite widespread fear among their rank-and-file that the president could gravely jeopardize their chances of recapturing the House majority and hanging on to the Senate in November.

“I agree with Nancy. She’s stating the obvious,” Welch said earlier Wednesday. “President Biden has made it clear that he’s all in, but the evidence continues to come in about how an uphill battle is turning into an up-mountain battle.”

Until Wednesday morning, Pelosi hadn’t said much either. But when she did speak, Washington took note of the potential implications.

The former speaker is one of a small circle of Democratic power brokers that can effectively pressure the president, multiple current and former Hill aides say. One chief of staff to a Democratic House member said the California Democrat – who’s 84 and stepped down from House leadership in 2023 – “has the most pull” among party elders who could ultimately deliver a grim message to a defiant Biden given the pair’s decades-long relationship.

“There’s only one person who has the gravitas and balls to say anything to Biden and it’s Pelosi,” a former Hill aide who is close with congressional leadership said.

Pelosi’s remarks were not coordinated with Jeffries, three senior Democratic aides said. Leadership is still in listening mode, these aides said, as the House Democratic caucus remain deeply split about how to address Biden’s fitness for office.

Jeffries has offered little direction to his members on approaching the Biden question. Privately, he has not told members whether to hold the line for the president, according to five people familiar with his deliberations who – like some others interviewed for this article – spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Vulnerable Democrats and other members who have spoken with Jeffries in recent days said they feel he understands their concerns.

In two separate meetings over the last 24 hours, Jeffries told members that he would soon relay members deep concerns to the president, according to three people familiar with the remarks. It’s unclear if a call has been scheduled yet.

But multiple aides said Jeffries was boxed in when many Congressional Black Caucus members came out in support of Biden this week. Jeffries is a member of the CBC and is extremely deferential to the groups’ leaders. Furthermore, there’s doubt among leadership that the president would accept their counsel should they share concerns about the campaign. A senior House Democratic aide complained that it wasn’t even clear if any members of House leadership could reach Biden if they tried.

But there is a resounding belief among Hill Democrats that Biden might listen to Pelosi.

“I will tell you that she is probably the most savvy politician walking the face of the planet,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Tex.), who this week praised Biden for being one of the most effective presidents in U.S. history. “So I will leave it there.”

Biden, 81, and Pelosi, 84, have a shared Catholic faith and have spent more than three decades working together on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy matters, including the 1994 crime bill that included an assault weapons ban.

Biden’s final major legislative accomplishment as a senator, the July 2008 passage of legislation to battle AIDS in Africa, was a hallmark issue that Pelosi shepherded through the House during her first stint as speaker. As vice president, Biden often got tasked with selling compromises with congressional Republicans to Pelosi’s caucus that left many Democrats with a sour taste – but garnered respect from Pelosi.

Once Democrats took full control of Washington in January 2021, Biden and Pelosi, along with Schumer, worked closely on an ambitious policy agenda including the largest-ever investment in fighting climate change. Their partnership grew so strong that throughout late 2021 and 2022, longtime diplomatic observers – from Foggy Bottom to Rome – took note of Biden’s delay in nominating a U.S. ambassador to Italy. That prompted deep speculation that whenever she stepped down as speaker, the president wanted to send the Italian-American Catholic to Rome as a capstone.

She denied those rumors, and after deciding to leave leadership, Pelosi made the unusual decision to stay in the House and rejoin the rank-and-file, albeit with the continued gravitas and an honorific title: “Speaker Emerita.”

Until last week, perhaps no Democrat had been a more effective defender of Biden’s age and capabilities than Pelosi, regularly turning any question on the topic into both an attack on Trump and a strong defense of Biden.

“Joe Biden has vision. He has knowledge. He has a strategic thinker. This is a very sharp president in terms of his public presentation,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February. “If he makes a slip of the tongue here or there, what‘s the deal?”

Just five months ago, Pelosi forcefully defended Biden’s handling of matters in private settings, even if there was some cleanup required of his public statements. “I think his public presentation is okay,” she told Cooper. “I think in meetings you see firsthand that he’s on top of the situation.”