Biden’s stumbles have Schumer and Jeffries walking a tight rope over Democrats split on party’s future

More than 15 years ago, the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defiantly said, “I don’t work for Barack Obama. I work with him.” Blunt as that may be, Reid explained something few people understand about politics: Even if members of Congress share a party with the president, they are not his employees. They are his partners, and sometimes, their interests may diverge.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries are living that lesson, as President Joe Biden faces mounting calls from congressional Democrats to step aside in favor of a potentially more viable candidate in the 2024 election. For his part, Biden indicated yet again on Monday that he has no plans to go quietly, urging his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill to get with the program in a forceful letter.

In short, Biden insisted he’s “running this race to the end, and beating Donald Trump.” This, of course, comes after Biden’s abysmal performance in the first presidential debate against Trump last month, which sent Democrats into a full panic.

At least 11 House Democrats have now called on Biden to step aside, including Minnesota Representative Angie Craig, who told The Independent immediately after the debate that she was “still processing what happened.” By the weekend, she had processed enough and said Biden needed to call it quits.

Craig’s announcement hits different than some of the others, as she’s the first Democrat from a battleground district to make the call. In 2018, she beat an incumbent Republican who represented a district in the suburbs of the Twin Cities that had voted for Hillary Clinton. Last year, during the final vote that made Mike Johnson speaker of the House, she said “happy anniversary to my wife,” before throwing her support behind Jeffries to protest Johnson’s anti-LGBTQ+ politics.

All of this poses a conundrum for Jeffries and Schumer. Together with Biden, they are the top Democrats in Washington, and they have typically worked in tandem with the president. But Jeffries and Schumer’s fealty is ultimately not to the president but to members of Congress, whom they must ensure win re-election. They also need to pick off vulnerable Republicans and open seats to grow their caucus.

So far, Schumer has not seen an open revolt by senior Democratic senators, likely out of deference to Biden as a former member of the Club of 100. But he’s undoubtedly readying himself for it. Schumer has a track record of pleasing every faction of his caucus from Joe Manchin to Bernie Sanders and everyone in between over the past two years. Similarly, with Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio running for re-election, he understands that some senators will need to create distance from an unpopular president if they are to have any chance at winning.

Jeffries, 54, has a more unique challenge. Indeed, Jeffries essentially inherited the job from Nancy Pelosi, who like Biden is an octagenarian, after she said that it was time to pass the torch to a new generation after the 2022 midterms. Jeffries’s ascent proved Democrats were serious about fresh faces.

So far, he’s essentially served as a speaker-in-waiting. In all 18 votes for speaker in the 118th Congress, Democrats unanimously supported him, which showed strength contrasted with the bickering of House Republicans. The GOP’s slim majority in the House also meant that Jeffries provided enough Democrats on key votes on everything from the debt ceiling to keeping the government open to expelling George Santos to passing aid for Ukraine and Israel to saving Johnson from a motion to vacate.

This moment for Jeffries is different. So far, he has not had to choose between his members’ interests and the president’s. Normally, leaders allow their most endangered members to break from the president. As long as they win, everything will be worked out.

Jeffries knows Republicans will do whatever they can to tie Democrats to Biden’s age and questions about whether he can continue serving as president. Indeed, they already have. An outpouring of Democrats calling on Biden to step aside will ultimately weaken the top of the ticket, which in turn weakens other frontline members, who will then try to distance themselves from the president as well.

All of this will in turn make it harder for Jeffries to achieve his ultimate goal: to take the speaker’s gavel from Johnson, his occasional rival and otherwise business partner. But he will need to strike the perfect balance if he is ever to strike the gavel to call for votes himself.

Congressional leaders of the president’s party play an important role. In 1974, a coterie of Republicans visited Richard Nixon amid Watergate and told him that he needed to step aside. Similarly, if the number of fed up Democrats reaches a fever pitch and it risks their chance to flip the House, Jeffries will have the unenviable job of telling Biden to go away to protect his employer: House Democrats. Or he will have to deliver the bad news to his caucus that Biden is staying and they will need to do whatever they can to survive.

Either way, this next week will test the youngest Democratic leader’s mettle.