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Sleepy Joe

It’s 8:30 P.M. Do You Know Where Your President Is?

Since his disastrous debate, Biden has done nothing to reassure America. Quite the contrary.

Biden covers his eyes
Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

I buried my head in my hands Thursday when I read that Joe Biden privately told a group of Democratic governors that he needed to get more sleep and do fewer events after 8 p.m., as if that was supposed to be reassuring. Do Biden and his circle really think that voters will just be chill with that? The absence of state dinners is one thing; America can live with that. But these comments, coming after reports that he is at his best only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will naturally make people wonder how prepared a second-term Biden will be to deal with some global crisis that happens at 8:30 p.m. Reassuring? It’s practically on its own disqualifying.

I have no ill will toward Biden. I still grade him a very good president overall. His blank check to Bibi Netanyahu has been an utter catastrophe. But on domestic policy, he’s been terrific. Ditto Ukraine, especially early on. If October 7 had never happened, and if he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had succeeded in leading Israel and Saudi Arabia toward a normalization deal, I’d rate him one of the great presidents in modern history.

But even then, would I say he should be the Democrats’ candidate? Not after that debate performance. And no, this isn’t “bedwetting.” If this were something that happened out of the blue and there was no prior context of worry about his age, OK, then the reaction might constitute bedwetting. But there are years of context. Biden’s age has been a topic of discussion since 2019, when his aides were saying he’d probably serve only one term, precisely to quiet concern about the prospect of an 86-year-old man trying to be the president of the United States someday.

As I wrote earlier this week, and as others have reported since the debate, it was around a year ago, the summer of 2023, that Biden started looking really shaky sometimes. So this has been on people’s minds for a long time. If there’s panic, it’s mainly because there just isn’t much time to change horses.

But there’s also panic because with every passing day since the debate, the status quo gets stronger. More people have called for Biden to step aside in recent days. Big donors are saying they’ll withhold contributions unless Biden stands down. But now, starting today, Biden is going on his little redemption tour, speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, and sitting down with George Stephanopoulos (it will air in its entirety Friday at 8 p.m.).

Stephanopoulos will be tough, I think. But Biden, who stumbled yet again in remarks on July 4, is nonetheless unlikely to look as bad as he did during the debate. Will it be enough for his people to stand pat with that ridiculous “he had a bad night” spin? It might be. Then next week, Congress will come back to Washington. There’s little doubt that congressional Democrats are hearing from their constituents that Biden has to go, but it’s still a major question whether as a group they’ll have the guts to say it publicly. Only two have so far.

Give Biden two weeks, people say. Maybe he deserves a little time. But … well, there are two buts. The first is that the memory of the disastrous debate will fade, and people will just forget what a train wreck the debate was. The second is this: If there were any real signs that Biden is engaged in genuine and honest deliberation about this, then I’d say sure, give him a week, anyway. But there’s very little indication that he and his people are engaged in that. Their public comments and their tweets go out of their way to be defiant. So why give him two weeks just to dig his heels deeper into the soil?

We all understand that that’s the standard public posture: Politicians always defiantly say “no!” until the moment comes when they realize they have to say “yes.” So maybe team Biden really is thinking this through. But this isn’t like, say, a sex scandal, which tends to build and build over the course of several days because there are new revelations. Unless there are new bad polls, Democrats will probably just be passive team players.

Some Democrats say stop all this and focus on Donald Trump. I and The New Republic put plenty of focus on Trump. We write about his lies endlessly. We put him on the cover as Hitler, for goodness’ sake. But fine: Trump’s lies were worse. Trump is obviously unacceptable. I’d rather have Joe Biden with all-out dementia as president than Trump. All that ought to go without saying.

The relevant Trump question of this moment isn’t how terrible he is. We know that. The relevant Trump question is how we stop him. I’m a long way from 100 percent sure that Kamala Harris can. But a lot of us have come around to the view that she has a better shot than Biden.

Biden ran when his country and party needed him. It wasn’t clear there was anyone else in that field in 2020 who could have beaten Trump. He did. But conveniently, in 2020, the country’s needs meshed with his own personal ambition. Now, it’s very plausible to argue that the country’s needs and his ambitions are at odds. That makes for a much harder choice, and much deeper introspection. Is he capable of it?