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It’s Time. Biden Needs to Say to Harris, “It’s Your Turn Now.”

Joe Biden has been a very successful president. But that debate was a disaster, and the country can’t afford a Trump presidency.

Kamala Harris speaks at a podium with American flags behind her.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks on reproductive rights for the two-year anniversary of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade on the campus of the University of Maryland on June 24.

Joe Biden has had a great presidency. By any objective metric, he has excelled as president. One of his top aides, who worked closely with him in the Obama White House, said to me last year, “I had no idea when he was vice president that he would be so effective as president. He has exceeded my expectations in every way.” 

Now Biden has an opportunity to produce the perfect capstone for his presidency, an act of wisdom and leadership that will seal his legacy as being among the best of this country’s chief executives. He can pass the torch to a new generation of leaders. He can look to his effective and talented vice president and say, “It is your turn now.”  He can work with other party leaders, including ex-presidents Obama and Clinton, to ensure her victory.

By far the most undeniable message of the debate that took place on the evening of June 27 between Biden and former President Donald Trump was that neither America nor the world can risk a Trump victory. Trump, already established as having the worst record of any president in U.S. history, as a convicted criminal, a fraud, a rapist, and a traitor, must not win in November.

On Thursday night, Trump made it clear that if he’s reelected we could expect even worse than we got the last time around. We understand the patterns of his lies because lies are all he ever offers, and during this debate he unleashed an endless stream of them. But when the lie is that we have to stop post-birth abortions (which are not even a thing) and leave the choice about the future of abortion to the states, we know that means that neither he nor the MAGA GOP will stop at gutting Roe v. Wade. When he equivocates about whether he will accept election results in November or dodges questions about whether he will weaponize the justice system to attack his enemies and then offers an absurd list of Biden “crimes,” we know a Trump win will usher in a police state in America. When he promises to end the Ukraine war even before he is sworn in and then adds the outrageous assertion that it was Biden’s fault the war took place and that “millions died needlessly,” without a hint of condemnation of Putin, we know what it means. If Trump won, Ukraine would be finished and so too would be NATO, the undoing of which, according to members of his own Cabinet, was on the unfinished business from his term in office. 

Despite a deeply flawed format that made Trump’s lies and threats to the future of the United States seem equivalent to Biden’s earnest if sometimes garbled responses, the debate made two things crystal clear. One was that if Trump were to win reelection, he would usher in an era of authoritarian hate-fueled fascism that would be the end of the United States as we have known it. The other was that the only person who stood between us and that outcome was not the ideal man for the job.

Biden has not only been an excellent president but he is a good man. His decency shines when placed aside Trump’s manifest corruption and odiousness. But we could barely see those core Joe Biden virtues during the debate because he was clearly not himself. It is not just that he stumbled or sounded hoarse or appeared halting or that he failed to effectively fact-check Trump. It was that it was hard to watch Biden and imagine that for the remaining four and a half months of this tight race, he was going to be up to giving Trump the sound and convincing beating that his record and the menace he poses warrant.

This was not about, as some pundits and reflexive Biden defenders would have it, a bad debate performance. It was not just that somehow Biden was falling victim to the history incumbents have of lousy first debates. Because this situation is not like any other.

There has never before been a threat to our country or system so grave or imminent as the reelection of Donald Trump. We can’t afford to leave any aspect of the campaign against him to chance. We can’t afford an effort against him that is anything less than the best that can be given, that is compromised in any way.

What is more, the concerns about Biden were not just about his debate performance. They were about how risky it would be to assume that somehow he was just having an off night and that he would regain his mojo and finish strong over the course of the next grueling four and a half months of campaigning. That might be possible. But because it was not assured and because the menace of Trump was so apparent, the side-by-side imagery offered last night was, in the view of one of the most senior Democrats in Washington, confiding in me, “terrifying.”

Like many others here in D.C., I was inundated with calls and texts and emails last night from friends who were active Democrats, among the strongest Biden supporters you will ever find, people who you would assume were the president’s first line of defense. All of them without exception expressed deep fear at what might happen if Biden continued as the candidate. Many speculated as to how he could be encouraged to step aside. One suggested the right path was to first convince Jill Biden that he should not run. Others said that a group of leaders including top Democrats on Capitol Hill or former presidents should do it. But all, without exception, said there is no time to spare; we must act now.

Indeed, one of the compelling arguments for urgency and how difficult a handover might be has to do with election logistics. Ohio has, for example, set a deadline for candidates to get on the ballot that is before the Democratic convention. Dems had figured out a workaround to have Biden officially declared the candidate even before then. Could that be done for anyone else? Quickly enough?

It is unlikely Biden will step down as the candidate. But it is undeniable that better candidates exist and that if it is critical Trump be defeated, Democrats must field the very best possible candidate. There is a long list of Democrats who could do the job and beat Trump handily. In my view, Kamala Harris has grown in office to such a degree and is so effective on what should be the essential issues of this race—like defending the basic freedoms of women that are under assault from the MAGA right—that she is the natural candidate. No one would better carry forward the Biden legacy. And stepping away from her would be hugely and dangerously divisive—a battle the party can ill afford for all the reasons cited above. (Whether Biden stays or goes, Harris must have a much larger and more central role in the campaign than many envisioned. She is its strongest asset.)

Indeed, a Harris-Whitmer ticket, two women, two proven leaders, two voices of a new generation in American politics, two people with links to vital aspects of the coalition that can deliver a big electoral victory for Democrats, would be immensely powerful. It would win, and that victory would assure the continuity of the work of the current administration and that the election held this November will not be the last in U.S. history.

But such debates are not for the idle speculation of columns like this one. Rather, in the wake of last night’s debate, it is essential that Democrats begin by acknowledging they have a problem. Next, a deeply serious discussion about whether Biden is the candidate must take place. If a change can be made at the top of the ticket, then do not hesitate to make it. The clock is ticking. And if that is not a possibility, then find a solution that recognizes Biden’s limitations. That could mean running not behind one man but as a movement, as the Democratic Party, as a coherent team of people with a clear vision for the future, a stake in that future and the ability to frame the peril posed by Trump for what it is.

I know which course I and many of the other senior Democrats with whom I have spoken would prefer in the wake of last night’s debate. But in either case, that debate can ultimately be seen as a positive if it forces the Democrats to reassess, reorganize, and recommit themselves to meeting that historic and consequential challenge that lies before us all—preserving our democracy and the freedoms so many have fought for so many generations to create and preserve.