Biden Isn’t Listening

At Joe Biden’s rally in Madison, Wisconsin, this afternoon, the men and women who had crammed into a middle-school basketball gym dutifully clapped, yelled words of support, and waved signs bearing the president’s name. But when it came time to chant “Four more years,” they sounded as if they were merely going through the motions. Most of the attendees I spoke with said they were more committed to the Democratic Party than its 81-year-old leader. Some told me that, if they could talk with the president one-on-one, they would encourage him to bow out of the race right now.

Just over a week after the president’s disastrous debate performance, Democratic voters seem down on his chances, and ready for an alternative candidate. But this is a political reality that has still not gotten through to Biden. Never has the president seemed more defiant. Never has he appeared more invested in proving himself and rebuilding his damaged self-worth.

“Let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race!” Biden shouted from the podium. “I will beat Donald Trump! I will beat him in 2020!” Yes, he said the wrong year, a gaffe that did not go unnoticed. Biden sounded, at times, like an old man yelling at a cloud, but also a bit like Harrison Ford in the movie Air Force One shouting, “Get off my plane!” He also felt the need to announce: “I am the nominee of the Democratic Party!”

Ask Democratic strategists what this election is about, and they’ll tell you it’s about democracy. Specifically, saving democracy from Trump. But these days, Joe Biden seems to think it’s about Joe Biden. Whereas he once leaned heavily on we, Biden is now leaning into I, inadvertently sounding like his opponent. Of course, Biden’s message is not apocalyptic or despotic like Trump’s—“I am your retribution”; “I alone can fix it”—but Biden is nonetheless happy to remind you of everything that he, Joe Biden, has done for you while serving as the oldest-ever president. “I wasn’t too old to create over 50 million new jobs!” Biden shouted. “I wasn’t too old to relieve student debt for nearly 5 million Americans!” As he’s done for the past several days, Biden argued that his poor debate performance was just a blip. “I’m not letting one 90-minute debate wipe out three and a half years of work.”

He looked tan. His voice boomed. But as his 17-minute speech wore on, his gaze alternated between engaged and adrift. And he began to stumble, swallowing whole words and phrases, even sometimes losing track of his thoughts despite the teleprompter. When discussing the multilayered threat posed by Trump, he took an odd pivot: “I couldn’t … ponder.” He suddenly stopped himself. “I guess I shouldn’t say.” It was unclear where he was headed. “I couldn’t be prouder to have your support, and the support of our great vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris.”

Four years ago, Biden promised he’d bring about a return to normalcy; he’d be boring; Americans wouldn’t have to worry about him. But the hours before today’s Madison rally were filled with tension and nervous anticipation. The Biden campaign is more interesting now, and not in a good way. One attendee in my earshot wondered aloud if the campaign had staged the event to announce that the president was stepping down. Speaking to reporters later in the day, Biden dismissed the prospect altogether: “I’m completely ruling that out.” Everyone around him was still ruling it in.

Biden cannot win the presidency without Wisconsin. It is one of three “blue wall” states, along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, that Democrats must capture in November in order to reliably reach 270 electoral votes. Biden is polling two points behind Trump in Wisconsin; at this point four years ago, he was six and a half points ahead.

Wisconsinites traveled from all over the state this morning to see the president in person. They’re true supporters. (Notably absent from the event was Wisconsin’s Democratic senator, Tammy Baldwin.) Many of them are hopeful that last Thursday’s debate was just a “bad night” for Biden as opposed to the new normal. But even they aren’t wedded to the idea that Biden is the best candidate to take on Trump come November.

A 44-year-old woman named Catherine Emmanuelle had driven 160 miles from her home in Eau Claire, where until two years ago she served on the city council. Emmanuelle pulled out her phone to show me photos of the day she and her daughter met Biden more than a decade ago, when he was campaigning for reelection with Barack Obama. She spoke of her deep affection for the president, but told me that she would love for the Democratic Party to have “brave and courageous conversations about if it’s time for him to step aside” and instead use his wisdom and expertise to usher in a new leader. “I think there’s a way to make this a win-win,” she said.

An 18-year-old named Kellen Klein had driven in from Pewaukee, just outside Milwaukee, and this fall will be his first time voting in a national election. Klein told me he plans to support the Democratic ticket no matter what, but is personally in favor of an open convention. I asked him what he would say to the president if he came out to talk with his supporters in line outside the venue. “I would probably say that I would prefer that he drops out,” Klein told me flatly.

Ruth Ann Summers, an 80-year-old retired nurse from Cuba City, Wisconsin, told me she first saw Biden at an Iowa campaign event during the 2020 election, and conceded that he seems different now. She told me that she would prefer to see Harris at the top of the ticket. “I mean, if you really want to know the truth, I think if women ran the world, it would be a much better place.”

For now, Biden shows no signs of listening to the supporters who think it’s time for him to step aside. After the president concluded his speech, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played on a loop. The intended message was far from subtle. But I left humming a track that had played earlier in the day—a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

The Atlantic

Leave a Reply