Biden campaign’s reset after disastrous debate looks a lot like business as usual

Jul 1, 2024, 7:00 PM

President Joe Biden, center right, and first lady Jill Biden, right, arrive on Marine One with gran...

President Joe Biden, center right, and first lady Jill Biden, right, arrive on Marine One with granddaughters Natalie Biden, from left, and Finnegan Biden, at East Hampton Airport, Saturday, June 29, 2024, in East Hampton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s reset after his disastrous debate performance is looking more like a return to business as usual.

Even as his campaign works to quell Democratic anxiety and reassure spooked donors, Biden has been putting the focus on presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump as a threat to the nation, and trying to get back to doing the job of president.

On Monday night, Biden will speak on the Supreme Court’s decision to grant broad immunity to Trump and other presidents from prosecution, the White House announced Monday afternoon. The president’s schedule later this week includes a briefing on extreme weather, a campaign reception, a Medal of Honor ceremony and the traditional July 4th White House barbecue. Then he’s off for a weekend at his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

Nothing out of the ordinary, it all telegraphed.

But Vice President Kamala Harris, in a Sunday night fundraiser, gave a nod to what she called “the elephant in the room.” The debate, she allowed, wasn’t Biden’s “finest hour.”

Still, “if we put aside the style points, there was a clear contrast,” she argued, going on to call out Trump as “a threat to our democracy” and “a liar.”

For all of the public efforts to shift the focus back to Trump, though, there have been private discussions on what more Biden could do to counteract what Americans saw during the debate, when he gave convoluted answers, trailed off at times, occasionally stared blankly and sounded raspy-voiced.

There has been talk about whether he should be seen more in public through town-hall style events or interviews and press conferences, which he has generally avoided during his time in office.

But most in his orbit are waiting on more substantial polling to come back in order to assess how bad the damage was before altering course in any substantial way. That’s according to four Biden advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Biden’s team may not alter anything at all. Many think — or hope — the fraught moment will pass, particularly after Biden’s family encouraged him to stay in the race and keep fighting during a huddle at Camp David on Sunday.

Campaign officials said Monday they had nothing to announce on new events. They said Biden would be campaigning as he has been, hitting battleground states as he has already been doing for months.

An ad released Monday was called “I Know” using clips from Biden’s post-debate North Carolina rally, where he said, “When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Quentin Fulks, Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager, put the focus on Trump in a call with reporters, saying, “When you do see President Biden out on the trail, he will be talking about the reasons why Americans should be scared of Donald Trump, as he has been for months.”

Even before the debate, the age of the 81-year-old Democratic president had been a liability with voters, and the prime-time faceoff put the issue front-and-center before perhaps the largest audience he will have in the four months until Election Day. CNN, which held the debate, said more than 51 million people watched.

“I think his age was baked in, to a large degree, and I know he can do better than he did on Thursday night. I expected to see better. I’m not sure other voters did,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a White House communications director during the Obama administration and a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

She added that, tactically, the campaign has responded by promoting Biden’s strong speech in North Carolina on Friday and by continuing to post strong fundraising numbers. Palmieri also said Biden might also want to sit for more interviews to continue to show that the debate was an anomaly.

“Their focus needs to be on getting him in front of voters that matter the most, and more interviews should be part of that. Don’t be like Trump in your own little universe,” she said. “For now, we’re early, but what they’re doing is working.”

There’s a sense that voters may now be watching Biden more closely for signs that show one way or another whether his debate debacle was a blip — whether he is, as he says, capable of doing the job.

Alan Kessler, a lawyer and member of the Biden campaign’s national finance team, has spent days calming jittery donors, telling them what he says he has personally witnessed when he’s seen the president — that he’s “lucid, strong as he’s always been.”

“To the extent it’s necessary, I’m reassuring people,” Kessler said.

Rebecca Katz, a strategist who worked with Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman’s winning campaign in 2022, saw potential parallels in Fetterman’s comeback from a shaky debate performance after he had a stroke.

Fetterman’s team highlighted especially bombastic comments his opponent made about abortion during that debate, and also had the candidate travel extensively afterward. He did lots of local television interviews to ensure voters in key markets saw him outside of clips from the debate.

“It’s not a perfect comparison but there is a blueprint for the Biden campaign,” Katz said. “You can have a rough debate night and still win.”

Biden expressed interest in doing at least one interview. At a Saturday fundraiser in East Hampton, New York, Biden said he had spoken with the broadcaster Howard Stern, who had interviewed him in April, where he answered open-ended questions mostly about his early years.

The president told the crowd he was ready for another sit-down with Stern, saying: “I had a great time on his show. And I’m actually going to take a chance in going back.”

The Democratic National Committee and Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, kept up damage control, holding an evening finance call. Over the weekend, they held calls with donors and one with dozens of committee members across the country — some of the most influential members of the party. They offered a rosy assessment of the path forward and gave no opportunity for others on the call to ask questions.

Multiple committee members on the weekend call, most granted anonymity to talk about the private discussion, described feeling like they were being asked to ignore a serious predicament.

Campaign officials have said there was no discussion “whatsoever” of Biden exiting the race nor of any staff shakeups following the debate.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said he thought voters were more concerned with the issues at stake, anyway. “I’ve been at this a while, and I know his work,” Casey said.

The window of opportunity for that is shrinking anyway. The Democratic National Committee has announced that it will use a virtual roll call to formally make him the nominee before the convention begins in Chicago on Aug. 19. But when that will happen and what it will look like is still unclear.

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Biden campaign’s reset after disastrous debate looks a lot like business as usual