The biggest takeaways from Friday night’s splashy primetime Biden interview

President Joe Biden needed his big interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to calm the roiling sea of Democratic insiders clamoring for the president to step aside. Beyond that, Team Biden likely hoped his primetime appearance would serve as a much-needed reset for a campaign that seems, at very best, stuck. A year ago, multiple July polls put Biden tied or a handful of points ahead of Donald Trump. Now, the most recent polls show Trump leading by up to six points nationally.

Friday’s primetime event may or may not have felt like an improvement from last month’s painful debate fumble. Social media reactions seemed mixed, at best. But even if rank-and-file liberals turned off their televisions feeling reassured, Biden’s greatest soft spot has never been core Democrats. In a new CNN poll out this week, 91% of Democratic voters still said they support his candidacy. The latest Wall Street Journal poll puts that number lower, at 86% of registered Democrats. Either way, Team Biden knows the path to victory likely runs through undecideds, independents and Trump-skeptical conservatives — many of whom now think Democrats would be better off without Biden on the ticket, according to that same CNN poll.

Even if rank-and-file liberals turned off their televisions feeling reassured, Biden’s major weakness has never been core Democrats.

Persuading the voters — and the donors — who don’t already love Biden should prove a much tougher challenge than soothing skittish but loyal partisans. Concerns about Biden’s age and mental fitness have been dismissed by White House insiders with varying degrees of nastiness and condescension for over a year. And Biden’s rough debate performance only adds to the perception that the folks inside the political bubble aren’t leveling with the American people. 

Concerns about Biden’s mental fitness are also proving uniquely damaging in ways Trump’s attacks simply aren’t. A CBS News/YouGov poll released at the end of June reported nearly three quarters of registered voters doubt Biden has the cognitive health to fulfill the duties of the presidency, up from 65% earlier in the month. Fewer than half of voters surveyed (49%) said the same about Trump.

That’s a big reason why Biden seemed so determined to pursue an aggressive and even slightly combative strategy in his ABC interview. In particular, Biden pushed back hard when Stephanopoulos asked a fairly straightforward question about whether Biden was aware of his party’s recent tensions — and his own sagging polls. 

“I’ve not seen what you’re proposing,” Biden said, adding he’d only “seen it from the press.” That snappy riposte from Biden only works if you haven’t been following the news. And judging by his numerous meetings with worried lawmakers over the last week, it’s not an honest one.

Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Seth Moulton (Massachusetts), Raul Grijalva (Arizona), Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and most recently Mike Quigley (Illinois) have called on Biden to exit the race in recent days. Others are more circumspect, but hardly enthusiastic: Maine Rep. Jared Golden and Washington Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez both have warned that Biden would lose in a matchup against Trump. There is even a brewing effort among some of Biden’s top donors to pressure the president into stepping aside. It’s hard to believe Biden could have missed all of that.

It was also a line Biden himself quickly contradicted. After arguing that he wasn’t actually down in the polls, Stephanopoulos reminded the president that he was in fact down six points in a recent New York Times/Siena poll of likely voters.

“That’s exactly right,” Biden retorted, seemingly abandoning his argument from just moments before. “New York Times had me behind before anything having to do with this race. Had me hide behind 10 points…. Nothing’s changed substantially in the New York Times poll.”

Biden’s polling message clearly needs some more work. 

Throughout, it was clear that Trump weighed heavily on Biden’s mind, and much of the interview focused on drawing sharp contrasts with his rival.

Throughout, it was clear that Trump weighed heavily on Biden’s mind, and much of the interview focused on drawing sharp contrasts with his rival, who Biden said is trying to “undo every single thing” he’s accomplished thus far.

“The man is a congenital liar,” Biden said. “He lied 27, 28 times [during the debate]… This is a guy who told us to put bleach in our arms to deal with Covid.” (Fact check: Mostly true.)

Biden also did himself no favors with skeptics by opting for a pre-taped interview instead of a live appearance, which may have forced the president to think more aggressively on his feet.

While he refused to commit to any sort of public cognitive testing on Friday, Biden has acknowledged that he performs better during the day, even going so far as to tell a gathering of Democratic governors on Wednesday that he plans to start wrapping up his events no later than 8 p.m. Not exactly the solution many are looking for. Unconvinced voters are also likely to wonder what Biden’s performance would have looked like had it actually taken place in primetime instead of during the middle of the day. 

Being president is, in fact, an incredibly demanding and round-the-clock job. Biden and his team have not yet convinced allies, lawmakers and the American public more broadly of his ability to fulfill his obligations — even if, occasionally, those obligations require sound presidential judgment calls in the middle of the night.

To his credit, Stephanopoulos focused several questions on Democrats’ crisis of confidence without pulling punches, at one point directly asking Biden if he was confident in his own mental state. 

“Are you sure you’re being honest with yourself when you say you have the mental and physical capacity to serve another four years?” Stephanopolous asked. 

“Yes, I am,” Biden replied. After a tempestuous week that has seen even some party faithful questioning Biden’s ability to diagnose himself, it remains to be seen how many outside of Biden’s inner circle share his confidence.

Biden remains defiantly insistent that he’s here to stay, telling Stephanopoulos that he would only drop out of the race if “the Lord Almighty” tells him to. But if Biden can’t correct his slipping poll numbers, he may find himself worrying less about God and more about an electorate that is quickly losing its own faith — in him.