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Vibe shift

Democrats Are Paralyzed About How to Handle Biden

Nancy Pelosi halted momentum toward coalescing behind the president.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters in the Capitol on June 28.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Despite no longer serving in House Democratic leadership, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains an influential voice in her party. So when she suggested Wednesday morning that—despite his repeated commitments to remaining in the race—President Joe Biden needs to make a decision about continuing his reelection bid, it seemed to halt any fitful momentum toward Democrats fully coalescing behind him. The number of Democrats calling on Biden to step aside, while still small, has grown to nine representatives, including some swing-district members.

The continued hand-wringing was characteristic of Democrats’ sclerotic mental state this week, as sentiment among lawmakers runs the gamut from staunch support for the president to private anxiety—and sometimes both at once. One consideration, said a Democratic lawmaker, is whether it is more effective for members who believe Biden should step aside to make a public statement or hold their powder.

“Many of us in Congress see that a pressure campaign is not going to be the way that this ends—that there needs to be an effort made by people who know the president well to take care of this behind the scenes, [and] that in public, it’s not going to help,” the Democrat said.

Although several key blocs, including the Congressional Black Caucus and many progressives, have remained staunchly supportive of Biden in the wake of his disastrous debate performance two weeks ago, other Democrats on Capitol Hill ever more publicly air their worries about the president’s fitness to serve.

Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe—which the president frequently watches—Pelosi stopped short of saying that Biden should remain in the race, saying instead that he should hurry up and make a decision. “It’s up to the president to decide if he is going to run,” Pelosi said. “We’re all encouraging him to make that decision, because time is running short.” Biden has been adamant that he has already made his decision, insisting in a letter to lawmakers that he will be staying in the race.

Speaking to reporters later on Wednesday, Pelosi insisted that she was not trying to push the president one way or the other. “I never said he should reconsider his decision,” she said. “The decision is the president’s.”

Some Democrats echoed the president’s rhetoric—that Biden has already made his decision. “He’s been crystal clear,” said Representative Glenn Ivey, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Democrats need to return to talking about the Biden administration’s accomplishments and policy goals, Ivey said, citing efforts to cancel student loan debt and lowering drug prices.

“We’ve got to get past the debate about the debate and actually get back to the campaign,” said Ivey.

However, the mere fact that Pelosi intimated that it’s an open question landed like a bombshell for some on the Hill. “The vibe was getting to ‘game on’ [on Tuesday], and now that movement has been arrested,” one House Democratic aide said of Pelosi’s comments.

Meanwhile, the number of Democrats calling on Biden to step aside, while still small, is growing. Within 24 hours, two Democrats who had flipped Republican-held seats, Representatives Mikie Sherrill and Pat Ryan, said that they believed Biden should end his campaign for reelection.

“I’d be doing a grave disservice if I said he was the best candidate to serve this fall,” Ryan told The New York Times on Wednesday. “For the good of our country, for my two young kids, I’m asking Joe Biden to step aside in the upcoming election and deliver on the promise to be a bridge to a new generation of leaders.” On Wednesday evening, Representative Earl Blumenauer, a longtime member and senior appropriator, joined the ranks of Democrats calling on Biden to drop out.

“It is a painful and difficult conclusion, but there is no question in my mind that we will all be better served if the president steps aside as the Democratic nominee and manages a transition under his terms. He has earned that right,” Blumenauer said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries met with “frontline” members, who represent key swing districts, on Wednesday, as well as members of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. He relayed to members that he will share their concerns with Biden, CNN reported on Wednesday, in an indication that these worries were far from fading. Thus far, neither Jeffries nor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has publicly withdrawn his support for Biden, although Axios reported on Wednesday that Schumer has listened to suggestions in private conversations with donors about a Democratic presidential ticket not led by Biden.

Even some of those Democrats who haven’t explicitly called on Biden to step aside are voicing major worries. “An unsentimental analysis of the cold hard numbers—which have no personal feelings or political loyalties—should inform what we decide and whom we nominate,” Representative Ritchie Torres wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday. “If we’re going to choose a particular path, we should be clear-eyed about its consequences. Blindness is not bliss amid the terrifying threat of a Trump presidency.”

On Tuesday evening, Senator Michael Bennet told CNN that Trump was “on track” to win in November, and “maybe win it by a landslide, and take with him the Senate and the House.”

“The White House, in the time since that disastrous debate, I think, has done nothing to really demonstrate that they have a plan to win this election,” Bennet said, although he too stopped short of explicitly calling on Biden to step aside. In a private meeting of Democratic senators on Tuesday, he was joined by Senators Sherrod Brown and Jon Tester—two red-state Democrats who face difficult reelection contests—in saying that Biden may lose the election to Trump.

“It kind of fits with my statement that I put out on Monday. What I said in my statement was that I have serious concerns, and he has to fix it,” Tester told reporters about those private comments on Wednesday. In that statement, Tester had said Biden “has got to prove to the American people—including me—that he’s up to the job for another four years.” Brown told reporters that he is “listening to the legitimate concerns of Ohio voters.”

Other Senate Democrats echoed those worries on Wednesday. “I am deeply concerned about Joe Biden winning this November because it is an existential threat to the country if Donald Trump wins,” Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters, although he added that “Joe Biden, as the Democratic nominee, has my support.”

Senator Tim Kaine, who is up for reelection in Virginia this year, told reporters that he has “complete confidence that Joe Biden will do the patriotic thing for the country.” This echoed Kaine’s comments from earlier this week, when he said on Monday that he believed Biden would make a patriotic decision, and “that decision is going to be one that I’m going to support.”

Another Democrat, Senator Peter Welch, told reporters that “the president and his team have to really evaluate the evidence that’s out there with a cold, analytic eye” to determine “what’s the best course to achieve the goal of saving our democracy from a catastrophic Trump presidency.” Senate Democrats’ caution could indicate an appreciation that public criticism may only further entrench Biden in his position.

Welch on Wednesday became the first Democratic senator to call for Biden to withdraw. “We cannot unsee President Biden’s disastrous debate performance. We cannot ignore or dismiss the valid questions raised since that night,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “For the good of the country, I’m calling on President Biden to withdraw from the race.”

“You know Joe Biden is a fighter, and the more you attack him, the more dug in he’ll get,” Senator John Hickenlooper said. “And I think part of the process is to give him space to really reconsider what is best for the country.”

Biden advisers Tom Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, as well as campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon—but not Biden himself—were scheduled to meet with Senate Democrats in a lunch meeting on Thursday. For his part, Tester told reporters he would not be in attendance, citing a scheduling conflict.

“I’ll probably get a recap,” he said.