6 Critical Days Following the Biden-Trump Debate

Good evening. Things are moving fast right now. Tonight, I’ll start by telling you the very latest, and then I’ll explain how six days turned politics upside down. We’re also looking at how Biden is fighting for his candidacy on the air.

I told you this election wasn’t going to be boring. But I didn’t think it would take less than a week for American politics to turn wholly upside down.

In just six days, President Biden’s bid for re-election plunged into crisis, so buffeted by doubt about his fitness to face former President Donald Trump in November that, according to a key ally, even the president himself is considering whether or not he can recover. The Supreme Court vastly expanded presidential power, heightening the stakes of the election in the most uncertain moment of the campaign. And all eyes are now on a series of tests that Biden has set for himself as Democrats agonize over the best way forward.

With four months to go until the election, Biden isn’t running against Trump right now. He’s running against — and trying desperately to change — the public’s impression of himself.

Since the debate on June 27, Biden has suffered from a series of self-inflicted wounds — the worst of which was a perceived denial over how much had gone wrong — that have brought long-simmering worries about his campaign to the fore. Understanding those can help us understand his efforts to recover — and where he might go from here. Let’s look back at six extraordinary days.

By now, we know what happened when Biden stepped onstage for a debate that had been proposed by his team. While Trump used the opportunity to spew falsehoods about his record and about Jan. 6, Biden’s halting performance left many Democrats in shock.

At a watch party after the debate, Biden claimed he had done well, while Jill Biden, the first lady, showered him with praise. “You answered every question, you knew all the facts,” she said — words that would come to symbolize the denial perceived to surround the president.

It was a noticeably different Biden who appeared onstage for a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday. He nodded to his age (“I don’t debate as well as I used to,” he said) but delivered a strong performance that his aides hoped would quiet the storm. Party stalwarts defended him, but some Democrats indicated a desire for him to address concerns about his age and fitness more directly.

Biden hunkered down with his family at Camp David after attending fund-raisers in New York and New Jersey. His campaign staff circulated two emails that seemed to minimize his troubles, chalking up anxieties among Democrats to “overblown media narratives” and the “bed-wetting brigade.” Those messages, along with Biden allies’ efforts to frame the debate as just one bad night, angered Democrats who felt the president and those around him were trying to gaslight the public.

On Monday, a Supreme Court ruling granting broad immunity from criminal prosecution to presidents ratcheted up the stakes of the election, particularly in the minds of Democrats who worry about what a second Trump administration would do with expanded power. Biden sought to seize on that message during brief remarks from the White House, but for some Democrats the ruling only underscored the risks of running a weakened nominee.

On Tuesday, Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first elected Democrat to call on Biden to step aside, while Democratic leaders expressed their most direct doubts yet. A report from my colleagues laying out additional lapses that Biden has had behind closed doors fueled even more worry. And some Democrats wondered why the president was not moving more quickly to campaign in public, to sit for interviews or to make the customary calls to political allies.

Biden and his aides and allies are trying to send two messages to the public: that he’s fit to serve and to run and that he’s not ignoring the concerns about his age and his health.

Biden will seek to convince the public of his fitness in the coming days. He will sit for a television interview on Friday and hold campaign events in Wisconsin on Friday and Philadelphia on Sunday.

“The president gets it, he does,” his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Wednesday. “He gets what people saw, and he knows how people felt.”

A second House Democrat, Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, on Wednesday called on Biden to exit the race. But the calls haven’t yet turned into a stampede. One senior congressional Democrat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, told me that party leaders in Congress are holding off on calling on Biden to do anything because they are waiting to see what the president’s next moves might be.

The Biden campaign is taking its effort to steady his campaign to the airwaves. I asked my colleague Nick Corasaniti to lay out the details.

On Tuesday, the Biden campaign placed more than $7.2 million in ad reservations across both television and radio in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina.

That significant cash infusion — especially during what is often the midsummer doldrums of a presidential campaign — will feature two new ads. The first, which began airing on Tuesday, focused directly on the debate. The ad splices Mr. Biden’s remarks from his decidedly more energetic rally the day after the debate, and features the president’s statement that “I know I’m not a young man, but I know how to do this job.” It also highlights the many falsehoods told by Trump during the debate.

And on Wednesday, the Biden campaign released another television ad, focusing on the Supreme Court’s presidential immunity decision and warning that Mr. Trump would be a danger to the nation if elected. “He’s already led an insurrection, and threatened to be a dictator on Day One,” the ad’s narrator says. “Donald Trump can never hold this office again.”

The Republicans’ House campaign arm launched a spot targeting Vice President Kamala Harris. Though the ad is an attack on Ms. Harris and attempts to tie her to border policies, focusing on the vice president amounts to an indirect attempt to legitimize speculation that Mr. Biden will end his campaign and she will take his place.

The Trump campaign, for its part, has not aired a television ad since June 27, and is not scheduled to go back on air until July 8, according to tracking firm AdImpact.

Nick Corasaniti

Polling and TikTok memes suggest plenty of voters under 30 are disappointed and dismayed — maybe even a little shocked — by their choices in this race. We want to hear from those voters. How are you making sense of this campaign? What is most frustrating? Are you bracing yourself for any arguments with family or friends over the holiday weekend? Let us know, and we may follow up to hear more.

Submit your response here.

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