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6 takeaways from Biden's high-stakes interview

President Biden speaks with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Friday.
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President Biden speaks with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Friday.

Democrats have been in full panic mode about President Biden’s candidacy and ability to beat Donald Trump since Biden’s dismal debate performance last week.

In an effort to quell that concern, Biden sat for a network TV interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Friday night.

Did it work? That will become clearer in coming days, but here are six takeaways from the interview:

1. He was better than in the debate, but Biden’s age is clearly showing. 

Biden may have calmed some nerves among some political allies with the interview, but he didn’t show the facility and coherence that Democrats would have wanted to see. His thoughts were, at times, scattered and less than clear.

“I just had a bad night,” Biden said of the debate. “I don’t know why.”

He said he had been traveling in the weeks prior, had a cold, even tested for COVID.

Will Democratic officials and, more importantly, persuadable voters buy that and believe he is up for four more years in office? Biden insists he is up to the job, but his age is clearly showing even more than it has in the past year or so — and at exactly the wrong time. Going into the debate, the bar of expectations was very low. All Biden had to do to clear it was show some energy and vigor. He didn’t do it. And now the bar has been raised. Every public appearance, speech and debate (if there even is another one) is going to be magnified.

2. Biden showed his stubbornness, for good or ill.

Biden again reiterated that he’s not getting out of the race, and even went so far as to claim that essentially no one else could do the job as well as he is doing it or be a better candidate against Trump.

Biden downplayed questions about his political standing, doubts about his ability to lead or to defeat Trump. “I’ve seen it from the press.” “I don’t think the vast majority are there.” “I don’t believe that’s my approval rating.”

He was deflecting and rationalizing away his vulnerabilities, but understanding why Biden hasn’t stepped aside is to understand his politics and the core of who he is as a person. He has faced myriad challenges personally and politically, and those obstacles have defined who he is. Biden is used to people telling him he can’t or he shouldn’t do something, and he believes the naysayers have long been wrong. 

Of course, those obstacles are all very different from the one he currently faces, because Father Time is undefeated.

Historian Douglas Brinkley once said of former President George W. Bush, “Stubbornness is a positive quality of presidential leadership—if you’re right about what you’re stubborn about.”

The same can be said about Biden or any president, for that matter.

3. Only the “Lord Almighty” could force Biden from the race — or maybe his closest allies in Democratic leadership.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” Biden said. “The Lord Almighty’s not coming down.”

Yes, a second coming to tell Biden to drop out is unlikely to happen, but Biden did seem to leave the door slightly ajar to exiting if his top congressional allies called for it, namely House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Jim Clyburn and Senate leader Chuck Schumer.

To be clear, none has called for him to drop out, though Pelosi changed her tune and said it’s a legitimate question to ask whether Biden’s performance was an “episode” or a “condition.”

“If you are told reliably from your allies, from your friends and supporters in the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, that they’re concerned you’re going to lose the House and the Senate if you stay in, what will you do?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden.

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Biden said. “It’s not going to happen.”

So it appears Biden’s future in this race is not his alone.

4. There’s a question of whether Biden thinks Vice President Harris can win or do the job as well.

“I don't think anybody's more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” Biden contended.

He later asked, incredulously, who else would have the “reach” he has with allies and whether anyone else could handle foreign policy as well as he can — even though he’s clearly diminished from what he was even a few years ago.

Not even, say, his vice president? Stephanopoulos didn’t follow up with that, but it was curious. Sure, anyone running for office should think no one could do the job better, but how close Biden has kept Harris lately — even hoisting her arm in the air at a Fourth of July event as if she had just won a boxing match — and given the questions about his age, it’s worth wondering whether it’s inherent in his answer that he doesn’t have the confidence in Harris to actually do the job or win?

5. This is a critical week for polls. 

We are now entering week two after the debate. It usually takes a couple of weeks for public opinion to solidify. Polls this week have shown Biden hurt by the debate — the degree to which is debatable.

So, this is an important period for whether Biden can weather this storm or not. There are Democrats firmly behind Biden certainly. But many, if not most, others are biting their nails and waiting to see what the polls say.

If he is where he was before the debate, it will help shore up support. If he slips further behind Trump, there will be more Democrats calling for him to step aside.

6. This whole episode shows the stark difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.

That Democrats have raised as many questions as they have about Biden’s viability shows a huge difference between the major parties.

One party, the GOP, doesn’t seem to care if two dozen women have accused their nominee of sexual assault, don’t care if he ran a fraudulent foundation and a sham “university,” don’t care if he paid off a porn star, don’t care if he lies repeatedly, and don’t care if he was impeached twice or was convicted on almost three dozen felony counts.

The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is concerned about… Biden’s age, not his character or priorities for the country.

It’s something that has irked people, like John Fetterman, the brusque Pennsylvania senator.

“Democrats need to get a spine or grow a set—one or the other,” he wrote on X. “Joe Biden is our guy.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: July 6, 2024 at 9:45 AM EDT
A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Hakeem Jeffries as House speaker. He is the House minority leader.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.