48 Hours to Fix a 90-Minute Mess: Inside the Biden Camp’s Post-Debate Frenzy

People hold signs calling for President Joe Biden to step aside this upcoming election in East Hampton, N.Y., as the motorcade carrying President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden en route to a campaign reception on Saturday, June 29, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
People hold signs calling for President Joe Biden to step aside this upcoming election in East Hampton, N.Y., as the motorcade carrying President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden en route to a campaign reception on Saturday, June 29, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

In the wee hours of Friday morning, not long after President Joe Biden had walked off the stage from a disastrous debate, his campaign chair, Jen O’Malley Dillon, acknowledged in a series of private calls with prominent supporters that the night had gone poorly but urged them not to overreact.

Later on Friday, top White House aides worked the phones, with Biden’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients, calling the Democratic leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer, to check in, according to a person familiar with the call. And by the afternoon, the Biden campaign had transformed its weekly all-staff call into a virtual pep talk to dispel any doubts creeping into the campaign offices in Wilmington, Delaware, and beyond.

“Nothing fundamentally changed about this election last night,” said Quentin Fulks, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, according to a recording of the all-staff meeting. “We’re going to get punched. We’re going to punch back. We’re going to get up when we get punched.”

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The 48 hours after the debate were a frenzied campaign within a campaign to save Biden’s suddenly teetering candidacy, a multiday damage-control effort to pressure and plead with anxious Democratic lawmakers, surrogates, activists and donors to stand by the president, the party’s presumptive nominee.

After a frenetic run of seven campaign events across four states since the debate, Biden himself is taking a pause for a preplanned family gathering at Camp David. He arrived late Saturday and will be joined by his wife, Jill Biden, the first lady, as well as the Biden children and grandchildren, according to two people familiar with the scheduling.

The gathering, for a family photo shoot, was scheduled in the spring, according to those people. But the timing and circumstances of Joe Biden being surrounded by the very family members who have been crucial in his past decisions to run for the presidency — or to sit out a race — have heightened the stakes and scrutiny surrounding the Camp David retreat.

For now, the divide between the party’s most active supporters and its voters, who for more than a year have voiced concerns about the 81-year-old president’s fitness for another term, remains as large as ever. Some Democrats are bracing for a drop in polling after his shaky debate performance that could, they say, reignite calls to replace Biden.

The all-hands efforts, from Wilmington to Washington, showed the depths of the damage Biden did to his reelection campaign in a mere 90 minutes. His campaign has been criticized as insular and insistent, so the burst of activity signaled that the debate fallout had turned into a real crisis that spun those in his orbit into a frantic battle mode.

Former President Barack Obama came off the sidelines to offer words of encouragement. Biden made a mea culpa of sorts on the stump in North Carolina at a proof-of-life rally. And Democratic lawmakers, including those on many wish lists of replacements, made the case for Biden on television, dominating Sunday morning political shows with interviews defending the president. Some of the most intense advocacy unfolded behind closed doors, at private fundraisers and in a flurry of late-night and early-morning conversations.

Their efforts appeared to have successfully slowed the tide of prominent Democrats calling for Biden to step aside. The president, for his part, grabbed microphones at campaign events, telling supporters and deep-pocketed donors that he knew he had flubbed the debate. And he repeatedly tried to flip the focus back onto Donald Trump’s performance.

“I didn’t have a great night,” Biden told a group of donors in East Hampton on Saturday. “But neither did he.”

Selling a ‘Comeback Kid’

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who hosted a private fundraising dinner for the president at his home Saturday evening, was among those receiving a call from a senior White House official.

“It was acknowledging that they had a tough night and also acknowledging that we’ve got to remember that this has been a heck of a run the past four years, and we’ve got to keep it going,” he said in an interview, adding, “They have to hit the gas pedal hard.”

At his event, which raised $3.7 million for the campaign, Murphy introduced the president as “America’s comeback kid.”

As some Democrats dreamed up ways to draft another candidate on private text chains and in quiet conversations, top Biden officials told nearly everyone that there was no viable alternative and Democrats needed to stay focused on the threat posed by Trump.

Among those making the case were Biden’s top White House advisers — Zients, Bruce Reed, Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti — who dialed up a list of legislative leaders, top donors and others, according to multiple people familiar with the calls. Top campaign aides said Biden would need to prove that he could be vigorous enough for the rigors of campaigning. But they reassured their allies that they believed he would be.

At a fundraiser for House Democrats with Obama on Friday evening in New York, the overwhelming topics of discussion were Biden’s failure on the debate stage and how the party should respond. Along with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, Obama told donors the debate had been a tough night, but he emphasized the urgent task of defeating Trump, two attendees said.

Some attendees blamed Biden’s aides for the debacle, arguing they should have never agreed to the format or to such a late start time. Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York said many donors urged the elected officials in attendance to pressure Biden to end his run for reelection. Meeks said he counseled donors to calm down.

“I agree that it was a terrible, terrible night,” he said, suggesting that some of that was because Biden tried to cram too much information into his answers.

“Donors are very concerned,” Meeks said. “I had a number of them come and said that they were panicked, to be quite honest with you, that we had to do something, we had to do something now. And others who came up to me and said it would be a mess to do something now.”

As Obama was trying to reassure donors, they were buzzing among themselves about an editorial posted online around the time of the event by The New York Times editorial board calling for Biden to step aside, according to two attendees. It followed other such calls from media figures Biden follows, including MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

For months, Democrats have, mostly quietly, worried about Biden’s capacity for campaigning at his current age and governing until age 86 if he wins a second term. A full 45% of Democrats did not want him to be the nominee in the days before the debate, according to the latest poll by the Times and Siena College, worries that were most likely only deepened by his performance.

Democratic officials were awaiting what the first wave of post-debate polls would show. For now, there seemed to be a sense among top Democrats that there was little they can do.

One of Biden’s top advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships, said the idea that a younger candidate could replace Biden and still beat Trump in November was akin to a “D.C. parlor fantasy.” The adviser compared that hope to the speculation that Nikki Haley or other Republicans could have knocked Trump off the GOP ticket.

Several advisers said a second debate, scheduled for September, should still happen. They said the president should focus on asserting himself against Trump rather than trying to explain the full Biden agenda.

The First 24 Hours

The effort to stop Democrats from fleeing the campaign started before Biden had even finished his performance on the debate stage Thursday night. Campaign war rooms established in Wilmington and Atlanta began pushing messages to reporters and surrogates, including that Biden had no intention of leaving the race.

The next morning, O’Malley Dillon, the campaign chair, marched through the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, flanked by Fulks and the campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, to debrief some of the campaign’s most loyal donors.

Later in North Carolina, Biden closed a rally with an acknowledgment of his age and limitations, transforming a scheduled rally in Raleigh into a performance that could be clipped and blasted across social media.

“I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to,” Biden said at the rally. But, he added, “I would not be running again if I didn’t believe with all my heart and soul I can do this job.”

At 2:36 p.m. Friday, the Biden team got one of its most important boosts: A supportive message from Obama. “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama wrote on social media.

“That statement was huge,” said Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of Biden’s national advisory board.

At the all-staff meeting Friday afternoon, top campaign officials — O’Malley Dillon, Chavez Rodriguez, Fulks and Rob Flaherty, another deputy campaign manager — told the staff that they understood they were facing a deluge of concern and criticism from friends, family and fellow supporters.

“We’re not asking you guys to pull the wool over your eyes about what you saw,” said Fulks, according to the recording.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Biden aides called after the debate and emphasized the stakes of this election. She joined the president at an annual LGBTQ+ gala Friday night in New York City.

“People started to kind of swirl a little bit but at the end of the day we’re going to be looking at two choices,” she said. “Folks are coming back to a very pragmatic space and understanding what has to happen this election cycle.”

‘I Didn’t Have a Great Night’

The next afternoon, at a Saturday webinar organized to reassure Democratic National Committee members, the party’s national chair, Jaime Harrison, spoke of the party’s field operation and the $27 million the Biden campaign had raised since the debate. He did not take questions, according to multiple participants, who said the committee’s views on Biden’s future remained mixed.

Throughout the weekend, the Biden operation was eager to present a picture of a unified party — maybe too eager.

On Saturday afternoon, the Biden team sent out a fundraising solicitation from James Carville, the Democratic strategist who has repeatedly argued that Biden shouldn’t be the party’s nominee.

“What really just set me into orbit was the day after his excuse for not doing well is that he’s old. Well, that’s the whole point,” Carville said in an interview, adding an expletive. “It is safe to say there is a pushback, rally-around-the-flag moment here. But we’ll see.”

As Biden swung through the Hamptons to gobble up cash at the home of billionaire hedge-fund manager Barry Rosenstein, he addressed his shortfalls onstage. “I understand the concern about the debate — I get it,” he said. “I didn’t have a great night.” On his way there, his motorcade passed a group of people holding signs that read, “Please drop out for U.S.” and “We love you but it’s time.”

By Saturday evening, O’Malley Dillon wrote a memo accusing “the beltway class” of counting out Biden prematurely. “If we do see changes in polling in the coming weeks, it will not be the first time that overblown media narratives have driven temporary dips in the polls,” she wrote.

She made no mention of the more than 50 million Americans who watched Biden’s sputtering performance in real time.

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