There’s a ‘big, big gulf’ between Biden’s inner circle and some White House, campaign aides

As Joe Biden struggles to contain the fallout from his poor debate performance, a gulf is widening between how the president’s most inner circle and the rest of the Democratic Party — including some in his campaign and White House — view his political viability.

Even as he worked to reassure nervous lawmakers and donors this week while playing host to world leaders at NATO’s annual summit, Biden faced mounting pressure over his candidacy from a growing group of Democratic lawmakers and prominent donors urging him to drop out or consider doing so.

Every day this week, the president’s most senior aides have held their usual daily call at 9 a.m. That group includes chief of staff Jeff Zients, counselor to the president Steve Richetti and senior adviser Anita Dunn, deputy chiefs of staff Bruce Reed and Annie Tomasini, senior adviser to the first lady Anthony Bernal, communications director Ben LaBolt and campaign aides Mike Donilon and Jen O’Malley Dillon. And none of them have discussed how or whether Biden should end his campaign, according to a person familiar with the conversations who was granted anonymity to discuss internal meetings.

The calls and numerous meetings among top aides have remained largely focused on plans for the day and how to get through this difficult period and win the general election. On Thursday, the New York Times published reports that senior aides were questioning how to get Biden to step aside.

But beyond that inner circle, a number of White House and campaign aides feel quite differently and have begun to discuss how to penetrate that group and compel the president to reconsider.

“The distance between the inner circle and the next ring out,” which includes a number of senior campaign officials, “is a big, big gulf,” said one Democratic operative close to the campaign.

“They’re all frustrated that they are not a part of these strategic decisions,” the person said.

But there are signs others could be looking at a post-Biden world. A survey commissioned by the campaign polled a head-to-head between Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Donald Trump as conversations swirl within the Democratic Party about the possibility of her replacing Biden atop the ticket, said three sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is still unclear why the poll was commissioned and how the campaign planned to use the results. A person familiar with the polling and granted anonymity to discuss private conversations told POLITICO, “This was done in the context of Trump doing attacks on her. He’s gotten much more aggressive in recent days.”

On Capitol Hill, Biden’s senior advisers briefed skittish Senate Democrats on Thursday in an attempt to quell their unrest. The campaign prepared a new memo for the meeting with internal data that showed they still had multiple ways to get to 270 Electoral College votes, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO. The clearest is through Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — a sign that the campaign acknowledged its path was narrowing as states such as Nevada and North Carolina appear out of reach.

Some lawmakers came away reassured, after the Biden campaign laid out “an aggressive plan” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters after the meeting. “I know he can win Michigan,” she said.

But the presentation did not appear to win over the group at large. Many senators left the meeting without saying much at all, a sign that Biden’s aides may only have convinced senators to not complain publicly.

Many lawmakers are in a wait-and-see mode until Thursday evening, when Biden is scheduled to hold a solo press conference at the conclusion of the NATO summit, a high-stakes moment that his allies have acknowledged needs to go well in order to calm party anxiety. House Democrats were already making plans to break with Biden after the press conference if he performed poorly.

Inside Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, the failure of this week’s multi-front effort by Biden to convince his party to turn the page on discussions of his viability as the party’s nominee — and the ongoing drip of doubts from more Democrats — has affected staffers, many of whom have also come to question the president’s path to victory.

“You name a campaign senior staffer and they are all in the same place, which is, that this is untenable,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the internal discussions.

Aides are bracing for a new wave of defections following Biden’s press conference and the end of the NATO summit where the president has touted America’s commitment to its allies and sought, through his speeches and other public appearances, to allay concerns about his age and stamina.

“People wanted to give him the week because they didn’t want to do it while he’s hosting NATO. But post-NATO, a barrage of people are going to come out,” said a Democratic strategist who works closely with House Democrats. “They also want to see how the press conference goes, but it feels like no one is ever going to forget the debate so it doesn’t matter what he does. I don’t think there’s anything he can do to bring people back into the fold.”

That, however, is not the view of Biden’s closest aides, some of whom, like Donilon and Richetti, have been with him for more than 30 years.

According to another person familiar with that group, there is a clear recognition of the new challenges that have emerged following the June 27 debate. The senior team’s daily 9 a.m. calls, the person said, have taken on more of a triage element as aides discuss how to address immediate political problems and who is going to do what.

Richetti, a key liaison to Capitol Hill, has been focused on talking with Democratic lawmakers wobbling over their backing of Biden. Zients and Dillon have primarily taken on the work of assuaging nervous governors and donors, appealing directly at times to top donors about maintaining their commitment to host fundraisers. Dunn, who oversees the communications shop, has been setting up multiple interviews with broadcast networks — three of which are planned for next week, two people said, to counter-program the RNC. And Donilon, perhaps the president’s most trusted aide of all, continues to drive the overarching message.

In addition, the same group of top aides have started holding a second evening call nightly at 9 p.m. to check in about the day and plan, the second person said.

“We know there are challenges after the debate, but this isn’t just being Pollyannaish,” the person said. “These conversations are all based on data. After everything, private and public polls still show this as a margin of error race.”

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