Democrats in panic mode after Biden's 'disastrous' debate performance

While replacing Biden at this late stage would be challenging, the party still has time to choose a new nominee before the Democratic convention in late August

US President Joe Biden faces off with former President Donald Trump in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with US President Joe Biden at CNN's studios.
US President Joe Biden faces off with former President Donald Trump in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with US President Joe Biden at CNN's studios.

Democrats in panic mode after Biden's 'disastrous' debate performance

US President Joe Biden’s disastrous performance in the first televised debate with former President Donald Trump will only add to concerns that the 81-year-old American leader is no longer fit to lead a major superpower. Questions about Biden’s leadership qualities have been growing in recent months as the president has made a number of gaffes, such as mistaking French President Emmanuel Macron with his long-deceased predecessor, Francois Mitterrand.

His judgement has also come under scrutiny over his handling of the conflicts in both Ukraine and Gaza, where his constant dithering on key issues, such as supporting Ukraine’s military campaign against Russia. More recently, his failure to implement a ceasefire in Gaza, having previously invested so much political capital in securing an agreement between Israel and Hamas, has severely weakened his standing on the world stage, with all the implications that could have for America’s standing in the world.

Now, following Biden’s faltering performance in Thursday night’s televised CNN debate with Trump, there are growing calls for the US President to withdraw from November’s presidential election contest on the grounds that he no longer has the physical strength nor the mental acuity to continue serving as president.

Stumbling and disoriented

From the moment Biden shuffled onto the stage, he appeared old and disoriented. For most of the debate, he spoke in a quiet and hoarse voice, often stumbling over his words, while on other occasions, his answers were simply incoherent. Throughout the debate, he appeared to struggle with his response to questions about policy, often trailing off in mid-sentence.

Arguably, the most embarrassing moment for the president came when he lost his train of thought while discussing healthcare. His faltering performance prompted Trump to remark of Biden at one point: “He’s not equipped to be president. You know it, and I know it.”

A poll published by CNN, which hosted the debate in Atlanta, after the debate showed that 67% of viewers thought Trump had won, compared with 55% who thought he would win before it started. In an attempt to limit damage, the White House briefed that Biden’s poor performance in the debate was due to the president's cold.

While Republican activists were delighted by Biden’s faltering performance, which appeared to confirm their claims that he was too elderly and frail to continue serving as president, it provoked dismay within Democratic circles, with senior Democrats now realising that they could be stuck with a lame duck candidate in November’s poll.

'Aggressive panic'

The disarray in the Democrats’ ranks over Biden was clearly evident from the discussions of CNN’s post-debate panel, which reported that senior Democrats are in an “aggressive panic” over their party leader’s apparent frailty. Dismay within Democrat circles over the president’s performance was exacerbated by the knowledge that it was Biden’s own decision to hold the debate so early in the electoral cycle after he taunted Trump in a video posted on “X”, urging the former president to debate him and “make my day, pal.”

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, senior Democrats such as Vice President Kamala Harris, who could be in the frame to replace Biden if does agree to stand down, was defensive about Biden’s performance, commenting, “I’m not going to spend all night with you talking about the last 90 minutes when I’ve been watching the last 3 ½ years of performance,” she said.

The scale of the calamity, though, was certainly not lost on prominent Democrat campaigners such as David Plouffe, who worked on former President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, who said that Biden’s performance was a “kind of a Defcon 1 moment” for the Democrats—a reference to the US military’s top-level warning.

His sentiments were echoed by David Axelrod, another Obama strategist, who warned: “I think you’re going to hear discussions that I don’t know will lead to anything, but there are going to be discussions about whether he should continue.”

Signs that support is ebbing away from Biden’s campaign were confirmed by the Democrat-supporting New York Times, which reported that a group of senior Democrat congressmen were already discussing the need for a new presidential nominee after watching the “disaster” of Biden’s performance.

There is even speculation that Gavin Newsom, the popular governor of California, is being encouraged to step in, even though Newsom himself has dismissed the suggestion as “farcical”.

Challenge ahead

The challenge now for senior Democrat power brokers is to decide whether to stand by their man or launch an intensive campaign to persuade him to stand down—a decision that can only be taken by Biden and his loyal wife, Jill. While it would be challenging for the Democrats to replace Biden at this late stage in the campaign if he does agree to stand down, there is still time for the party to choose a new nominee before its convention takes place in Chicago in late August.

After the debate, though, one thing is sure. Unless Biden can find a way to reinvigorate both his own performance and his campaign, the likelihood of Trump—a convicted felon—making a remarkable comeback to the White House becomes stronger by the day.

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