Four days since his disastrous debate, Biden hasn’t called top Democrats in Congress

WASHINGTON — Four days after his disastrous debate performance, President Joe Biden still hadn’t personally called top Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill to shore up support, five sources told NBC News, though White House chief of staff Jeff Zients was making calls.

Biden’s team has been working to quash questions swirling in the party about whether he can continue in the race against former President Donald Trump. Yet there’s growing frustration at the president’s inner circle for being overly “insulated,” said a Democratic lawmaker, who added that Biden isn’t doing the type of personal outreach they’d expect.

Biden hasn’t personally reached out to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both New York Democrats, or to other Hill leaders after his halting debate — a decision that has stunned some lawmakers.

“It’s troubling,” a House Democrat said, adding that the White House staff should be transparent — at least in private calls with lawmakers — about whether Biden’s struggles on the debate stage were a one-off or whether they have seen the problem before.

Schumer and Jeffries haven’t publicly expressed any disappointment at the outreach. Schumer’s office had no comment, while Jeffries’ office didn’t respond to questions.

The Biden campaign didn’t comment specifically on Schumer and Jeffries but said Biden had talked with some elected officials.

“The president has spoken personally with multiple elected officials on the Hill and across the battlegrounds since the debate,” campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said.

Top White House officials have been in touch. Zients called Schumer and Jeffries after the debate, three sources said, and he has continued to trade calls with Schumer to discuss “staying aligned on next steps,” one of those sources said. Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, also was making calls to the Hill.

While Democratic lawmakers are all standing by Biden publicly, at least four told NBC News that they privately believe he needs to drop out now — four months before Election Day — to avoid a lopsided defeat for Democrats.

“It’s a very tough call. But because he will continue to decline, and because if he continues as our nominee we risk some catastrophic event after the convention that prohibits him from continuing as the nominee, he should step aside and allow for a nominating process at the convention in August,” said a Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

Asked whether Biden should gracefully bow out now, a moderate House Democrat replied, “yes,” adding that they still would like to see whether Biden’s approval drops precipitously in new polling after the debate.

Another Democratic lawmaker said colleagues will decide what to publicly say about Biden once they see the impact of the debate on House swing district polls. Democrats need to flip just a handful of seats to flip the House to Democratic control, while they face a tough map to hold on to the Senate.

“That has to be the firewall” against a potential Trump presidency, the lawmaker said.

Another House Democrat, this one a vulnerable moderate facing a tough re-election this fall, said they were still processing what happened last week and not yet calling on Biden to drop out of the race. But this lawmaker expressed anger and pointed the finger at the people around Biden 81, for letting him step on the debate stage.

“I hold his family and his advisers directly responsible for this mess,” the vulnerable lawmaker said in an interview. “They are closest to him, and they should have pulled him out before this happened.”

The person added: “Just hoping someone above my pay grade figures this out.”

Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., the chairwoman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, also reiterated frustration with the Biden team’s handling of the debate and said Democrats need more information to assess “what happened” as they defend their seats.

“Obviously, we saw what we saw. We saw what 50 million Americans saw, and we have concern for the president’s well-being. We were disappointed and worried for him. … Many of us have been upset with his team of advisers that he was put in that situation,” Kuster said in an interview Monday.

“And I think we need to get a clear understanding of what happened, both in the debate preparation and during the debate. He’s obviously been much more energetic since then at the rallies,” Kuster said. “We all have a lot of concern for him. I hope he’s fine. And so the first stage is to assess what the impact is in these tough races.”

The Biden campaign, his political allies and top Democratic Hill leaders have chalked up Biden’s debate performance to a “bad night” and said he should be judged on his long list of legislative accomplishments and the fact that the alternative, Trump, is dangerous to the country. An energetic Biden acknowledged at a campaign rally Friday, “I don’t debate as well as I used to,” but he said he still plans to win in November.

Many Biden allies and family members have spent the past several days circling the wagons, and some campaign aides and donors have argued that trying to nominate a replacement so late in the game could create an even worse scenario for the party.

“This magical thinking about the delegate selection process is people using mushrooms,” said Orin Kramer, a Biden fundraiser and a veteran of Jimmy Carter’s White House. “They have to get rid of the drugs and focus on the future of civilization. He’s been a great president.”

In an appearance on MSNBC over the weekend, Jeffries called Biden’s debate showing an “underwhelming performance” and said House Democrats would be having conversations by phone and virtually during the July Fourth recess about the path forward. But he said he was standing by Biden, whom he described as a “good man, an honorable man,” running against a “con man.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, told NBC News on Monday, “I support the president’s decision to stay and fight — the American people respect those with resilience and grit.”

But a Democratic lawmaker who has been in touch with members who face competitive races this fall described them as “scared.”

“The ones that are in the worst position are front-liners in the swing states who already were feeling as though they had to carry the president … and then the catch-22 of trying to go out there and campaign. … It’s hard not to be panicky,” the lawmaker said. “It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of anxiety.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a Biden ally who led the team of impeachment prosecutors after Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6 attack, acknowledged Sunday that “honest and serious conversations are taking place” in the Democratic Party about Biden’s political future.

Two Democratic officials in Washington said the way for Biden to recover would be to get out more in unscripted settings to prove the debate was simply an off night — getting on TV, doing interviews or town halls, holding news conferences.

That’s the “only way to fix it,” one of the Democrats said. “Got to get him out there.” The other said Monday it’s “damning” that four days after the debate, Biden still hasn’t held an event where he speaks without a teleprompter.

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