Fierce pressure mounts on Biden ahead of critical television interview

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Every time things look like they can’t get worse for President Joe Biden, they seem to do just that.

The Fourth of July holiday brought no respite after Biden’s disastrous debate performance, which raised concerns about his capacity to serve a second term and pitched his reelection campaign into an existential crisis.

And the scrutiny will only increase on Friday with the airing of an ABC interview that will provide a critical test of the president’s ability to stem panic in the Democratic Party exactly four months from Election Day.

The latest effort by the White House to quell the controversy is already disintegrating. The New York Times and CNN reported Thursday that the president had told Democratic state governors that he needed more sleep and that he’d no longer schedule events after 8 p.m., three sources briefed on the comments said. His reasoning frustrated several governors who’d come to the White House to seek reassurance about Biden’s condition, sources said. And it is likely to raise further questions about whether the president is fit to fully execute the duties of the presidency now, let alone toward the end of a second term, when he would be 86. Biden’s comment may also infuriate Democrats who want him to be far more visible and to throw himself into spontaneous, unscripted events to prove his stamina and sharpness.

But Biden issued another defiant warning that he has no intention of stepping down, a day after several allies privately said he’s aware that the coming days could be critical for his hopes of staying in the race. “I’m not going anywhere,” Biden told military families gathered to watch July Fourth fireworks at the White House.

The administration’s attempts to explain away the president’s poor debate performance keep having the opposite effect. So far, Biden aides, officials or allies have suggested that he was overloaded by his debate prep team; that he was suffering from jet lag after two European trips, even though the debate took place more than a week after he got home; and that he had a cold. The White House’s credibility took another hit Thursday when it said that the president had in fact seen a physician in the days following the debate, despite White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre having said the day before that the president hadn’t been examined since his last full physical in February.

Biden’s latest difficulties are only ramping up the pressure ahead of his critical interview that will air Friday night on ABC. The sit-down with George Stephanopoulos is one of the campaign’s own self-imposed tests for Biden to dispel the image of a shaky and at times confused president that was seared into the minds of 50 million viewers at the CNN debate. Any sign of compromised mental sharpness in the interview could deal another blow to the campaign. Democrats will also want Biden to make a powerful case for a second term and to adequately prosecute his argument against Trump — both arguments he failed to deliver during the debate in Atlanta last week.

“I had a bad night,” Biden said in a radio interview on “The Earl Ingram Show,” conducted on Wednesday. “And the fact of the matter is, that, you know, it was — I screwed up. I made a mistake. That’s 90 minutes on stage. Look at what I’ve done in 3.5 years.”

The problem with the president’s argument is that the debate debacle has forced voters to consider not just the successes of his administration — which are comparable with those of any other modern Democratic president — but also whether they can imagine an even slower and more fragile president being in office years from now.

The fallout from the debate is so potentially damaging because Biden’s performance appeared to confirm the views of overwhelming majorities of voters that the president, at 81, is too old to be running for a second term. A week of building crisis has obliterated, at least temporarily, the comparison the Biden campaign had long hoped to draw with Trump, who is promising a campaign of retribution if he’s reelected and who almost destroyed democracy in refusing to accept his loss in the 2020 election.

And it means that every Biden appearance is now drawing a painful measure of scrutiny. On Thursday evening, he made it through a speech using familiar lines at the Independence Day party. His sentiments were deeply felt, but the effects of the president’s advanced age were obvious, especially by comparison with public events from a few years ago.

At least two Democratic lawmakers have so far called for Biden to step aside before the Democratic National Convention in August, and there is intense behind-the-scenes anxiety among party lawmakers who fear the president’s problems could drag them down and hand the White House — as well as the Senate and the House of Representatives — to Republicans.

Even Democrats who are standing firm behind Biden want him to do more to prove to voters that he is up to the job of a second White House term. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents a district in Michigan — a critical swing state in November — said Thursday on “CNN This Morning” that there was “a lot of fear” among voters about Biden’s debate showing but added that voters also recognize the delicate process involved in any attempt to find a new nominee. She argued that Trump had also had a bad debate but implored Biden to step up the pace of his campaigning. “He’s got to go out there and show it this week,” she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was in the governors’ meeting at the White House on Wednesday, vigorously defended Biden after campaigning on his behalf in Michigan. And he downplayed potential Biden schedule curtailments, which are certain to be seized upon by Republicans to reinforce their arguments that he is not up to the job of commander-in-chief. “That’s called human,” Newsom told CNN. “And God bless, I like when a president acknowledges they’re human. And so I think people are reading between the lines too much on that.”

Newsom, seen as a potential alternative contender if Biden decides to exit the race, was asked whether he would support Vice President Kamala Harris as the presidential nominee in such circumstances. He said he’s “not going to play into that” but acknowledged the question was legitimate.

Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz noted that Trump hardly showed rigor, claiming the ex-president “spends half of his day ranting on Truth Social about plans that would cause a recession and the other half golfing.” And he said that “normal presidents strike a balance,” arguing that President George W. Bush went to bed at 9 p.m. and President Barack Obama had dinner with his family at 6:30 at night — a concession, however, to his daughters’ youth, not Obama’s age at the time

Biden’s struggles are forcing the Trump campaign to contemplate a possibly changing electoral equation. The former president has now started to augment his attacks on his successor with new attempts to single out the vice president in apparent preparation for a potential switch of Democratic nominees. And on Thursday, the presumptive GOP nominee offered to debate Biden one-on-one with without moderators. “I have the answer to the Crooked Joe Biden Incompetence Puzzle — Let’s do another Debate, but this time, no holds barred – An all on discussion, with just the two of us on stage, talking about the future of our Country,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.

Trump has moved into a slight lead in several national polls following the debate, breaking out of what was for months a neck-and-neck race within the margin of error. The increasingly unpromising state of the Biden campaign has many Democrats worried — one reason the ABC News interview and a scheduled press conference at the NATO summit in Washington next week will be so crucial.

“I think we’ve got to take a very sober look at the reality of the race as it currently stands,” California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman said Thursday on “CNN News Central.”

“It wasn’t just one bad night; it was a bad night that may have locked in a really unfortunate narrative about President Biden’s age and fitness, and that narrative could be very hard to undo,” Huffman said.

Spelling out a scenario that is chilling Democrats and that may soon bring concerns about Biden to a critical point, Huffman added: “We’re four months before the election and the guy who’s threatening our democracy, our fundamental rights in the free world right now is winning.”

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