You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Joe Biden Really Owes the Country Right Now

There’s no sugarcoating the debate, which was a disaster. At a minimum, he and Jill owe the country an honest conversation about whether he can still do this.

Joe Biden at the first debate, hosted by CNN
Kyle Mazza/Anadolu/Getty Images
President Joe Biden at the first presidential debate in Atlanta, on June 27

In the wake of President Biden’s undeniably disastrous debate performance, it’s being widely suggested both that Biden should step aside as the candidate and that there is almost zero chance he will do so. Democrats privately indicate that Biden is stubborn in his belief that he remains the candidate best positioned to defeat Donald Trump. Only his wife, Jill Biden, is capable of overcoming that belief, we’re told.

This has led some to argue that the Bidens, together with their long-trusted inner circle, need to have a very difficult conversation and accept that it’s time for him to bow out of the race. They owe it to the good of the country, goes this argument, and it would be the most statesmanlike and public-spirited route forward.

After that debate performance, the Bidens do owe a conversation like this to the country, but there’s a way to frame their obligation in more productive terms. Despite all the doomsaying, there is still a plausible path to victory for Biden, but it’s likely a diminished one. What we are owed, then, is the following: genuine assurances that the Bidens have seriously, meaningfully grappled with whether he’s capable of the near-flawless execution and change of course that will be imperative over the next five months if he is to find that narrow path.

That execution will have to be almost entirely free of stumbles. Can Biden guarantee us that?

There is no sugarcoating Biden’s performance. For extended periods, while Trump laced into him mercilessly, Biden looked down contritely or gazed hollowly into the distance. Trump lied sociopathically about pretty much everything, was frequently deranged and incoherent, and wouldn’t commit to accepting the results of this election. Biden did call out some of Trump’s lies and draw a sharp contrast on their forward-looking visions on the economy, climate change, and the future of Europe.

But the net overall effect of the proceedings was to dramatize, on and off, for nearly two hours, Trump’s central argument: that Biden is weak and not in control of events. Biden’s failure to aggressively defend his record—along with his befuddled expression as Trump savaged him—reinforced impressions of Trump’s twisted but sometimes-effective animal dominance, granting him a wholly unearned aura of authority.

None of this is fair. The fact-check-free CNN debate format probably created the impression for millions of lower-information voters that everything Trump was spewing was largely unobjectionable or even true. The format absurdly treated Trump’s insurrection as just another issue among many in a conventional political debate. And in an unhappy accident, when Biden took notes during Trump’s broadsides, the lower edge of the screen mostly obscured that from view, creating the impression that Biden was merely looking down, absorbing Trump’s criticism, almost in submission and defeat.

But two things can be true at once: CNN indefensibly let down the country with this format—yet at the same time, Biden did blow a major opportunity to work within it to dispel the single biggest voter concern out there about him. When asked directly about his age, Biden could have leveled with the country by forcefully articulating something like this:

Yes, my voice is hoarse. Yes, my walk is stiff. That’s what happens when you age. But you know what? I took charge of making this country better after Trump left behind a catastrophe. I’ve largely succeeded. The only person up here who is mentally unfit for the presidency is the sociopath next to me who wrecked our country when a crisis called for real leadership, tried to destroy our centuries-old democratic experiment, and is pathologically lying to all of America right now to cover it all up.

Biden did not seize that moment. More broadly, what’s truly unfortunate about his performance is not just that it badly complicates the road ahead. It’s also that after seeing it unfold, it’s harder to have confidence that Biden has the fight in him necessary to triumph amid the newly adverse circumstances he now faces.

Which brings us back to the conversation the Bidens may or may not have.

The case that Biden still has a plausible path is obvious: Incumbents who win reelection often stumble in first debates. Biden has been a successful president, and no one should dismiss the advantages of incumbency. Swing voters have been known to view debate performances very differently than pundits do. With four months to go, all kinds of unpredictable events will intervene. Biden just does still have time to take charge of this campaign. Trump could hideously overreach. There is still an anti-MAGA, pro-democracy majority out there, and if that coalition understands that it is not voting merely for Biden but rather for saving democracy and preventing our society from sliding into profound degradation, unrest, and civil ruin, it could hold.

But for this to work out, very little else can go wrong. No more serious stumbles in high-stakes interviews or in other settings. No more botched campaign decisions like the one that produced the absurd ground rules of this debate. No more of anything remotely resembling this debate performance, especially at the next debate, presuming there is one.

Can Biden guarantee that? Only the Bidens can answer that question.

Some will see it as an evasion to frame the Bidens’ obligation this way: It doesn’t take a stand on whether Biden should step down right now. That’s by design: This question genuinely is fraught with deep uncertainties, because the path to an alternative is also very dicey.

Yes, Kamala Harris might function as a kind of baseline-level Democratic replacement candidate. But she might not function that way; she might prove disastrous. Yes, one can envision a successful open-convention scenario that bypasses Harris, and yes, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer seems safer right now. But such a scenario inevitably carries unforeseen intra-coalitional and procedural risks. We just don’t know how Whitmeror Harris, or anyone elsewill weather the brutal exigences of a presidential campaign. What has to be asked is: Which route forward is more risky? Banking on Biden executing all the way, or rolling the dice on one of those other scenarios? There’s no safe or easy answer to that question.

But here’s what we do know: The Bidens are in a position to seriously try to answer it, by first gauging whether the president is unable to guarantee the performance that makes his remaining route forward plausible. Will this conversation happen? After the debate Biden curtly rebuffed concerns, declaring: “It’s hard to debate a liar.” And it’s unclear whether top Democrats will prevail on them to have that conversation at all.

If they do, theoretically the Bidens and their trusted advisers could conclude, in good faith, that the best way forward is to remain in the race. And for all we know, that could actually be the right call. But if the Bidens owe the country anything right now, it’s that they engage this conversation seriously and honestly, with no hint of hubristic worry about whether bowing out now would be perceived as a humiliating end to his long career.

What propelled Joe Biden to assume the presidency so late in life in the first place was the threat to the country posed by Trump. Biden did the country a tremendous service by temporarily neutralizing that threat, moving the country past the pandemic, and putting our economy and preservation of the planet on a path to a sustainable, more equitable future. Nothing would be a more dispiriting end to this career than sticking with the race for the wrong reasons and enabling the Trump threat, zombie-like, to inflict itself upon us all over again.