President Biden Can Fire Back After His Disastrous Debate

As president, Joe Biden has led our country capably through vexing domestic public health, climate, and public safety crises while uniting allies to join forces to counter global security threats. He’s sparked constructive exchanges with business leaders at our CEO forums. He was cogent and engaged when one of us spoke with him at an event in Greenwich last month. Having worked on his 1972 Senate campaign before his wife and daughter were tragically killed in a car accident, one of the authors has seen how Biden can rise from the ashes of catastrophic personal loss. Far better than his handlers, he knows how to fire back from his disastrous debate. But Biden must move quickly before this crisis spirals out of control and before it becomes the unfortunate and unintended capstone to a five-decade long career defined by resilience from adversity.

These last five days, however, have been squandered as the Biden team seems shell shocked and in denial, with Biden not practicing what he knows better than any: how to rebound successfully from disaster.

Rather than assuaging the concerns of anxious voters, alarmed donors, political allies, and media critics, the Biden campaign seems to have made things worse through a combination of evasion and hubris, clumsily waving away concerns over the President’s age. They have been blaming media and finger pointing at debate prep staffers, rather than explaining what happened and presenting any coherent strategy to counter Biden’s biggest weakness – the public perception that he is declining fast.

Here are five key lessons from Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters (co-authored with Andrew Ward) for how Biden can get back on track urgently before the crisis of confidence imperiling his campaign continues to spiral out of control.

Fight, not flight – facing up to the issue

A common reflex when under attack is to deny the accusation and discredit the legitimacy of critics. The misguided belief is that if the problem is swept under-the-carpet, it will magically disappear. That rarely works, and it is not working for the Biden campaign.

We joined an hour-long call yesterday between senior campaign officials and the 560 largest donors of the campaign, and as reported, the longer the campaign officials spoke, the more donors dropped from the call in frustration sending us messages of disappointment. In the first 15 minutes, already over 50 had hung up and after 40 minutes over 100 dropped. The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher and CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reported on how the Biden lieutenants shielded participant questions from each other and failed to answer any of the concerns directly.

The campaign officials managed to make matters worse by tossing out pep rally platitudes, attacking the media, and belittling critics to a group of influential donors who are unlikely to fall for such unconvincing patter.

That is professional malpractice by the Biden campaign. Instead of denying the problem, Biden’s campaign needs to recognize that gaslighting the American people, asserting “you didn’t see what you saw” in Trumpian style is not a winning strategy and reflects incredible hubris.

Rebuilding heroic stature – explaining the damage through exoneration or contrition

Biden and his team need to explain the obvious acute cognitive impairment the word witnessed Biden’s sudden loss of mental alertness, mumbling, diffuse focus, memory failures, confusion, meandering thoughts within single sentences, and weakened executive mental functioning were alarming. His apparent recovery soon after the debate was equally noteworthy. What caused his obvious loss of control? Was he having a bad reaction to cold medication? Did an overanxious debate prep fail him?

The only way for Biden to quiet his chorus of critics is to explain what happened as well as to show beyond a shadow of doubt that he is fully with it, and that he has the energy and stamina needed of a presidential candidate.

Proving your mettle – getting back in the fray

Retreating into a protective cocoon is not a successful strategy for public engagement. Biden has to do more than read the teleprompter at staged pep rallies in front of supportive audiences: he must engage in genuine unscripted exchanges and interpersonal interactions to prove his mettle. One option is to head out on the road and prove his fitness to govern in front of voters across America. Not only is there no better way to demonstrate fitness and agility than to press flesh, but these exchanges play to Biden’s strong suit, in one-on-one and small group exchanges instead of impersonal, large, staged events.

Venture capitalist Alan Patricof suggests a “whistlestop bus or railroad trip” around the country, a throwback to the days when Harry Truman campaigned coast to coast from his legendary campaign train. If Biden can’t handle this, then perhaps it really is time for him to step down, and we ought to find this out sooner not later.

As CNBC’s Brian Sullivan pointed out, Biden missed an opportunity to prove his mental agility when he held a press conference yesterday to discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling on presidential immunity – but flubbed it by not taking questions at the end, sticking only to reading scripted remarks from the teleprompter.

Perhaps Biden wanted to keep the focus on the Supreme Court, but then he should have, at least, clearly conveyed to the press that he would engage in open unscripted Q&A at a future time if that were the case – as his refusal to take questions become the story and drowned out his message.

Recruiting others into battle – using networks effectively

Intimate family members and friends can offer solace and emotional support but relying only upon the home team leads to insularity with limited fresh ideas and curtailing opinion leading surrogates. Many believe that Biden has been excessively isolated behind layers of overly protective staff: even top donors, close Biden friends who’ve known him decades, former Senatorial colleagues, and other elected officials alike have difficulties getting through to him nowadays, not to mention Biden has given fewer media interviews than any of his predecessors.

Now Biden needs these natural allies more than ever before. In fact, according to NBC, Biden has not reached out to either Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer or House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries yet, a week after the debate. Outreach and genuine engagement from Biden can help build the groundswell of genuine support and grassroots conviction which is needed to reinvigorate the Biden campaign.

Rediscovering your heroic mission – getting your purpose clear

Biden has to give a compelling picture of the future and compare the future under a 2nd term President Biden to the future under a 2nd term President Trump. Neither one of them did that at the debate. Biden still has time to fire back.

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