Democrats’ Anxiety on Display as Jill Biden Opens Michigan Campaign Office

Jill Biden, the first lady, sought to reassure a roomful of Michigan Democrats on Wednesday that her husband was up to the job and that he could still win a second term in the White House despite a rocky debate performance last week. Not all of them were convinced.

“Because there’s a lot of talk out there,” Dr. Biden told a crowd celebrating the opening of a campaign office on the outskirts of Traverse City, “let me repeat what my husband has said plainly and clearly: Joe is the Democratic nominee, and he is going to beat Donald Trump just like he did in 2020.”

But inside and outside the cramped office where the first lady spoke, some Democrats voiced concerns about President Biden’s age and said they feared he could lose in November.

Reba Leiding, 74, who was riding her bike outside the event, said she was “sick with worry.” She said she planned to vote for Mr. Biden if he stayed in the race, but she thought others might not.

“I’m just afraid that his performance in the debate will make enough people think that he isn’t competent, and that he won’t win,” said Ms. Leiding, a retired academic librarian. “And I think Trump is a disaster.”

Across the street from Dr. Biden’s motorcade, two men who described themselves as committed Democrats held homemade signs as the event ended. The message on their poster boards: “Step Aside Joe!”

“I’m just concerned about his diminished capacity,” said one of the sign-holders, Steven Holl, 69, a retired therapist who said he canvassed for the president last weekend and would do so again if he stays in the race. “I love Joe Biden. I love what he’s done. I think he’s been a great president. And sadly, I just think time’s catching up with him.”

Not every Democrat voiced those concerns. Dr. Biden and other speakers received sustained applause as they laid out the case for the president inside the new campaign office. Dawn Wahlstrom, 68, said she had been impressed with Mr. Biden’s work, was hopeful about the election and would vote for the Democratic nominee, whether that was Mr. Biden or someone else.

“I’m very happy with the platform and everything that Biden-Harris have done,” Ms. Wahlstrom said. “So I’m very optimistic, and I think most of my friends are pretty optimistic.”

Ms. Wahlstrom was among several dozen Democrats who crowded into a sweltering room decked out in American flags and signs reading “Michigan Is On Board.” Some of the speakers acknowledged the growing concern about Mr. Biden, but none dwelled on it. Michigan, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 but Mr. Biden carried in 2020, is seen as crucial for Democrats to win in November.

Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and a Traverse City resident, told the crowd that “I know that there has been some hand-wringing the last week, but you cannot be wringing your hands when you’re rolling up your sleeves.” Ed Duggan, who is leading the Democrats’ campaign in Michigan, rattled off the president’s accomplishments but said, “We have some work to do here in Michigan,” an apparent allusion to polls that mostly show Mr. Biden a bit behind in the state.

Traverse City, population 15,700, is a tourist-focused waterfront city that was abuzz this week with vacationers and locals attending the National Cherry Festival, preparing for Independence Day and, in some cases, keeping up nervously with national political news.

Its county, Grand Traverse County, is politically mixed: Mr. Trump carried it by three percentage points in 2020, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat whom some voters floated as a possible replacement for Mr. Biden on the presidential ticket, won it by six percentage points in 2022.

Mayor Amy Shamroe of Traverse City, who attended the first lady’s event, said she had heard some concerns about Mr. Biden’s debate performance, especially in the immediate aftermath. But Ms. Shamroe, 43, said she hoped Mr. Biden would stay in the race.

“I think that Biden-Harris have done remarkable things,” the mayor said, noting the administration’s work on improving infrastructure and lowering insulin prices.

Others in the room were nervous. Trenton Lee, a Democrat hoping to flip a Republican-held seat on the Grand Traverse County Commission, said he would vote for Mr. Biden if the president remained in the race. But Mr. Lee, 31, said he sensed that many of his peers were skeptical of the president. Mr. Lee said several people had encouraged him to “ask Jill to have him step down.”

If the president were to stay in the race, Mr. Lee said, he would worry about Democratic voters “sitting on the couch,” hurting not just the party’s chances of holding the White House, but also down-ballot candidates like himself.

“I respect Joe Biden and his service to his country,” Mr. Lee said, “but I think the next generation of voters deserves a little better choice.”

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