Hollywood Elite Urge Biden to Step Down After Disappointing Debate Performance

Hollywood Elite Urge Biden to Step Down After Disappointing Debate Performance

“Maybe Obama will save us,” a Democratic lawmaker remarked, expressing hope that the former president could persuade Joe Biden to step aside. Top Democrats, including elected officials, political operatives, and major party donors, are urging President Joe Biden to step down “immediately” for a candidate who can more effectively challenge Donald Trump and demonstrate the capability to handle the world’s toughest job. However, they are at a loss on how to turn this aspiration into reality and how to pressure the famously stubborn Biden into early retirement.

“We are so screwed,” a senior Democratic state official in a key swing state vented to Rolling Stone just hours after Thursday night’s presidential debate concluded. Team Biden had pushed for the CNN event, the first 2024 in-person forum between Biden and former President Trump, hoping for a performance that would not only surpass Trump but also shift a presidential race that has remained nerve-wrackingly close in the polls for months.

Instead, Biden’s performance was widely criticized within the upper echelons of his own party. Less than an hour into the televised debate, Democratic lawmakers and Biden allies on Capitol Hill were already texting and calling each other, brainstorming different last-ditch efforts to get Biden to step aside and let Vice President Kamala Harris, or perhaps someone else, face Trump in the November election.

As one Democratic strategist put it, Thursday’s debate “was slightly better than Apollo getting killed by the Russian in Rocky IV.”

The stakes of the 2024 contest could not be higher, for reasons Biden himself has frequently emphasized. Trump has been openly campaigning as an authoritarian, vowing to seize dictatorial powers, seek retribution against his political enemies, and use the military to round up and deport millions of people currently in the United States.

“What the fuck are we supposed to do now?” a Biden administration official rhetorically asked early Friday morning, despairing at the likelihood of Trump’s return to power.

One Democratic lawmaker relayed that several legislators were already discussing staging an “intervention” in hopes of landing an alternate nominee by the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this August. However, this lawmaker conceded, as did more than a dozen other sources in the party elite, that no one seems to know how to convince Biden to bow out or how to force him out without risking tearing the Democratic Party apart. The intra-party struggle also risks handing the presidency back to a convicted felon and attempted coup leader who has pledged to weaponize the federal government against his enemies and millions of immigrants.

There is a conspicuous lack of elected Democrats, including senators and congresspeople who privately want Biden to step aside, willing to publicly call for an end to Biden’s reelection bid. This is partly because “no one wants to be the first” to cross the party’s leader, says another Democratic lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

Among the desperate ideas being floated in Washington, D.C., is one that involves recruiting Biden’s former boss for their pressure campaign. “Maybe Obama will save us,” one Democratic member of Congress hoped, in late-night communications reviewed by Rolling Stone.

This refers to an extremely preliminary plan that some liberal lawmakers and their advisers have discussed since Thursday. The idea is for influential Democrats to try to convince former President Barack Obama to meet with Biden and urge him to step aside for the sake of the nation. As of Friday morning, the sources did not know how Obama felt about Biden’s debate performance or his chances of beating Trump this year, nor did they know if such a plan would even work. However, Democratic lawmakers and others familiar with this new idea believe that Obama, given his close relationship with Biden, is one of the few people who might have a chance of convincing him. (Obama, for his part, posted a half-hearted defense of Biden on X on Friday: “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know.”)

The dozen sources, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, include members of Congress and their staff, veteran Democratic consultants, fundraisers, and Biden administration officials.

On Friday, Biden appeared at a rally before supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, attempting to move past the embarrassing CNN debate. Speaking from a teleprompter, Biden appeared a more passable candidate. He acknowledged his poor performance but vowed to persevere in the campaign: “When you get knocked down, you get back up!” Biden said, insisting he is still capable of doing the job of president. “I know I’m not a young man,” he admitted, “I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I know. I know how to tell the truth. I know how to do this job.”

For now, many party elders are counseling calm and patience. Biden is also receiving support from Sen. John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat who easily defeated Dr. Oz in 2022 despite a widely perceived damaging debate performance as Fetterman was recovering from a stroke.

“I refuse to join the Democratic vultures on Biden’s shoulder,” Fetterman posted on X. “No one knows more than me that a rough debate is not the sum total of the person and their record.” Fetterman’s message to fellow Democrats? “Chill the fuck out.”

A Biden campaign official told Rolling Stone: “Of course he’s not dropping out. He just gave a very forceful speech at a rally in N.C. with a fired-up crowd.” The official added that the Biden campaign also saw its “best grassroots fundraising day since we launched [in] April 2023.”

The Democratic establishment crowned Joe Biden in the 2020 primary cycle when the party quickly consolidated around him after the South Carolina primary. Now, that establishment—or at least a portion of it—is trying to dethrone him after last night’s debate debacle with Donald Trump.

Heading into the debate, Biden had a clear goal: show enough vigor to convince swing voters and restive Democrats that he was still up to the job, bait Trump into talking about the 2020 election, and hit some policy talking points to draw a contrast between himself and his predecessor. Such a performance might not have fundamentally changed the trajectory of the campaign, but it would have helped quiet the murmuring dissatisfaction among Democrats.

Instead, the president stumbled through his responses, which were often confused and halting. He even declared at one point—after freezing for several seconds—that “we finally beat Medicare,” setting up an attack from Trump. Perhaps because he has a cold, his voice was thin and scratchy, like he had swallowed a ball of steel wool. The debate rule muting interruptions likely helped Trump here; it put the wandering nature of Biden’s responses on full display, without distractions from Trump’s own interventions, so prominent in their 2020 contests.

Calls for Biden to drop out erupted in the aftermath. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a personal friend of the president, said that he wept while watching the debate and declared that Biden “has no business running for reelection.” Polling guru Nate Silver penned a column with a similar response. On MSNBC, Claire McCaskill, former Democratic senator from Missouri, said that even many elected Democrats “feel like we are confronting a crisis.”

In terms of policy, the debate did offer some insights into the way that both candidates conceive of their respective coalitions. Trump tried to cast himself as the defender of federal entitlements, claiming that Biden’s immigration policies threatened Social Security and Medicare. This is a long way from the “Ponzi scheme” allegations some Republicans would use to attack Social Security during the Tea Party years. At the same time, Trump championed tax cuts and deregulation. The supposed break between Ronald Reagan and Trump on economic policy might be somewhat exaggerated.

As expected, Biden launched attacks on Trump’s character and responded “yes” to moderator Jake Tapper’s question about whether everyone who voted for Trump was “voting against American democracy.” The rhetoric of emergency has been a long-term theme in Biden’s presidency, shaping his strategy in the midterms and his reelection bid. Perhaps trying to appeal to the progressive base, Biden called for sweeping action to address “climate change,” which he characterized as an existential threat.

The exchanges about international affairs were also revealing. Trump referenced the administration’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, an inflection point in Biden’s polling, multiple times. The former president pointed to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s attack on Israel as signs that international actors don’t fear Biden and that global instability has escalated on his watch. Biden stressed his alliance-building. In trumpeting his support for Israel, he separated himself from progressive critics of that country, who suffered a stinging defeat earlier this week when “Squad” member Jamaal Bowman lost his primary.

Worries about Biden’s age and faltering performance overshadow these policy issues, at least for now. But some structural factors that have transformed American politics may affect how this issue plays out. Both Biden and Trump have benefited from the politics of negative partisanship. One might compare the current frenzy to replace Biden with the tempest unleashed by the October 2016 leak of the Access Hollywood video. Back then, Trump withstood a concerted effort to get him to stand aside—and ended up winning the White House.

Biden might feel inclined to make a similar gamble today. His position within the Democratic Party is much stronger than Trump’s was within the GOP in 2016. Trump was an insurgent presidential nominee. Biden is the sitting president who swept the primaries. Whatever voters think about his debate performance, Biden might believe that he can still win because the alternative is Trump. Biden’s team will keep a wary eye on polls. A complete collapse in his numbers could prompt his campaign to reassess. If the bottom does not fall out of his support—and in today’s highly polarized electorate, it may not—then the president may well decide to weather the storm.

Biden also might avoid a palace coup of senior aides begging him to stand aside. His lack of vigor has likely widened the spheres of influence for various Cabinet secretaries and White House functionaries. All now have additional incentive to keep him as president and reinforce the bubble of optimism in the West Wing.

Another strategic factor: Biden was anointed in 2020 because his nomination was the clearest path to defeating Trump. That calculus may still apply. Biden certainly lacks the polling advantage he enjoyed in 2020, and he may be trailing Trump slightly. But the race remains close enough that Democrats may yet conclude that sticking with the president is their best bet.

If Biden stands aside, of course, the Democrats’ complications explode. While admittedly sparse, public polling of a matchup between Kamala Harris and Trump indicates that the vice president could perform worse than Biden. Some potential Democratic contenders have prevailed in swing states (Governor Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper), but there’s no guarantee that they could supplant Harris or otherwise win the nomination. A new candidate could help the Democrats pivot away from the dissatisfactions that have soured Americans on the Biden administration, but the potential difficulties of such a shift might prove too daunting.

Ultimately, the decision will not come down to operatives in the Democratic National Committee headquarters on South Capitol Street. Joe Biden still holds all the cards. He has an overwhelming number of the pledged delegates. According to the rules of the Democratic National Convention, these delegates “shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” These delegates are essentially bound to Biden as long as he is running. No one can force him to stand aside.

When the debate ended, Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, a pop-culture ally of the president, shrugged it off and issued a torrent of attacks on “the former guy.” So the president can still count on the support of Luke Skywalker. If he prevails, though, it won’t be the Force that saves him but the Dark Side: revulsion for the alternative.

Source: Rolling Stone, New York Times, MSNBC

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