Biden Advisers Weigh How to Persuade Him to End His Campaign

President Joe Biden arrives on stage for a family photo with NATO leaders during the NATO Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden arrives on stage for a family photo with NATO leaders during the NATO Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden found himself increasingly isolated Thursday as a small group of his longtime aides and advisers have become convinced that he will have to make what they see as the painful but inevitable decision to abandon his campaign for reelection, according to three people who have been briefed on the matter.

In recent days, the group has been trying to come up with ways to persuade Biden to step aside from the campaign. Those discussions were recounted by three people familiar with them who, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive situation. There is no indication that any of the discussions have reached Biden himself, one of the informed people said.

The effort comes after a disastrous debate performance in Atlanta two weeks ago plunged Biden’s candidacy into crisis. He is facing pressure from all sides: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are vacillating between tepid support and outright calls for him to drop out, and those calls were being echoed by some of the wealthiest donors in the party.

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At the center of it all is Biden, who is convinced that he is the only one who can beat former President Donald Trump, according to people familiar with this thinking, and who is unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by people outside his insular inner circle, which includes his family.

He faces a new test Thursday night in a high-stakes news conference following the NATO summit in Washington. In an early stumble before it even got underway, Biden flubbed his introduction of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, President Putin.”

After a moment, Biden realized his mistake, came back to the microphone and quickly said, “President Putin? We’re going to beat President Putin. President Zelenskyy. I’m so focused on beating Putin, we got to worry about it.”

The small group of Biden’s advisers in the administration and the campaign — at least two of whom have told allies that they do not believe he should keep trying to run for a second term — said they would need to convince the president of several things for him to leave the race.

They said they would have to make the case that he cannot win against Trump. They would have to convince him that another candidate, such as Vice President Kamala Harris, could beat Trump. And they would have to assure Biden that, should he step aside, the process to choose another candidate would be orderly and not devolve into chaos in the Democratic Party.

The internal deliberations reflect a growing standoff between Biden and his party since his disastrous debate performance.

The White House denied the account. “Unequivocally, this is not true,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson. “President Biden’s team is strongly behind him.”

T.J. Ducklo, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said the same for the president’s political staff. “Patently false,” he said. “This team stands with the president.”

The people who are closest to the president, a group that includes some of his longest-serving advisers and members of his family, remain adamant that Biden will stay in the race. The conversations about the president dropping out of the race have been happening outside that small orbit, but include some of his most loyal allies.

Senate Democrats aired their concerns about Biden’s electability in a two-hour lunch meeting Thursday with senior Biden campaign officials. Senators emerged from the private meeting, which was held a block from the Capitol at the headquarters of the party’s Senate campaign arm, skeptical and mostly unmoved, though no new defectors in that chamber immediately came out with calls for Biden to drop out of the race.

Still, after a session suffused with frustration and sadness, few Democrats said their reservations had been resolved. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters that he needed to see more evidence to convince him that Biden still has a clear path to victory.

“Some of my concerns are allayed; some others have been deepened,” Blumenthal said after the closed-door meeting with Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, two of Biden’s top advisers, and his campaign’s chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. “I need more of the kind of analytics that show the path to success.”

Inside the meeting, some senators voiced frustration that the only data presented was some top-line polling numbers showing that Biden was ahead with Black voters and women, according to an attendee who described the discussion on the condition of anonymity.

Many senators expressed worries about the fate of their colleagues in competitive reelection races, while Biden’s team gave a presentation premised on the notion that Biden was staying in the race. The attendee described a sense of general sadness in the room.

“I think you should ask Joe Biden if he can win,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told reporters who asked afterward about his confidence in Biden’s viability.

The president told confidants before his disastrous debate showing June 27 that he believed he had a better chance of prevailing in the election than Harris did, according to a person told of the matter. Two people close to the president said he remained sure that he had a better chance of success.

Biden’s campaign is quietly testing the strength of Harris against Trump in a head-to-head survey of voters. The survey, which is being conducted this week and was commissioned by the Biden campaign’s analytics team, is believed to be the first time since the debate that Biden’s aides have sought to measure how the vice president would fare at the top of the ticket. It was described by three people who were informed about it and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

A majority of Democrats feel that Biden should step aside, according to a Washington Post-ABC News-Ipsos poll published Thursday. The poll also showed that the race remains close between Trump and Biden, but that Harris would fare slightly better if she were to replace him on the ballot.

Biden and his advisers have long dismissed polling that shows concern over his age or ability to serve, and have been encouraged that polls continue to show a tight race between Biden and Trump two weeks after the debate.

The consensus inside Biden’s operation is that it will take hard numbers to convince him, particularly polling showing that his support has eroded significantly.

The decision by the respected Cook Political Report this week to move six key states in the Electoral College in Trump’s direction reflected the mounting electoral challenge he faces. But some polls have shown that Biden is still within striking distance of Trump and that may bolster his belief that he can still recover.

A memo written by two top Biden campaign officials and distributed to staff Thursday reaffirmed the view that Biden is still the best candidate to beat Trump.

“The movement we have seen, while real, is not a sea change in the state of the race,” said the memo, written by O’Malley Dillon and Julie Chávez Rodríguez, Biden’s campaign manager.

Reporting was contributed by Reid J. Epstein, Lisa Lerer, Shane Goldmacher, Maggie Haberman, Robert Jimison, Carl Hulse, Annie Karni, Catie Edmondson and Maya C. Miller.

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