Bye Bye Biden? 

It was an inauspicious start. Just minutes into the first Presidential debate on 27th June, Biden stumbled and Trump pounced. Losing his train of thought, Biden finished answering a question on his record with “We finally beat Medicare”. Having already shot Biden a puzzled glance as the President became increasingly incomprehensible, Trump responded, “He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death”.  

Debates hinge on key moments. Richard Nixon’s sweaty appearance is said to have cost him against John F. Kennedy in 1960. Or when another septuagenarian president Ronald Reagan turned this supposed disadvantage around against Walter Mondale in 1984. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”, quipped the Republican candidate. 

These images and soundbites linger in the voters’ minds far longer than content. The vast majority of the electorate are nowhere near as engaged as professional pundits. They may only tune into small parts of such debates and rely on perceptions to make decisions. 

The Democrats pushed for this early debate hoping to undo growing public perceptions of Biden as senile. Recent social media clips have shown the President looking disoriented at a G7 parachute display and freezing on stage with President Obama. 

Aides briefed that these videos were taken out of context. Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal said Biden was as “sharp as ever”. And with the President apparently spending a full week preparing to face Trump, they hoped to dispel rumours around Biden’s diminishing mental capacity. But it’s had the opposite effect. 

Speaking to Mitchell Reiss before the debate, he argued less loyal figures saw this as a final chance to remove Biden if things didn’t go to plan. 

With his capacity to govern again now firmly in the media spotlight, many senior Democrats are pursuing this plan of action. 

The party has long known Biden is an unpopular candidate. His rerun against Trump is a contest few Americans want. But fear and inertia have kept party loyalty intact. Biden has secured enough delegates to win the nomination so cannot be forced out. He would have to be convinced that it was in the best interests of the party and country to step down. And any challenger seeking to make that case risks the wrath of the man who may still be President next year. 

While the polls still favour Trump, they haven’t yet moved decisively. Biden loyalists believe their man can recover and cling to an improved performance in front of supporters in North Carolina on Friday. But any further slips may change the equation for potential rebels. If that happens, who are the main contenders? 

Kamala Harris

Biden’s VP is the obvious replacement. But there is little enthusiasm for her candidacy in the party or country. RealClearPolling suggests she may even be less popular than Biden. She trails Trump by 6.6 percent compared to Biden’s 1.5 percent. 

Yet it’s awkward for Democrats to overlook the natural line of succession. For a party increasingly concerned with identity politics, rejecting a woman of colour will not play well with activists. 

Gretchen Whitmer

The two term governor of Michigan would inject youth into the geriatric runoff at a sprightly 52. Even swing voters in the midwest state speak positively about her, showing an ability to transcend America’s partisan politics. 

Gavin Newsom

California’s governor would pass a Hollywood screen test for the role. He looks and sounds the part. Despite his warm words of support for President Biden, pundits agree he covets the highest office. California’s association with “woke” politics and Newsom’s draconian Covid lockdowns limit his support across the political spectrum. 

Michelle Obama

The wildcard. Her odds have surged in response to an Ipsos poll suggesting she is the only candidate that can beat Trump. But would the former First Lady sacrifice the tranquillity of the family’s post White House life for an increasingly febrile political climate? 

Despite the drama, the Wall Street Journal reports that Biden’s inner circle are urging him to stay in the race. Its most influential figure, his wife Jill Biden, is particularly vehement in her support. At a fundraiser last week, she is said to have downplayed the debate’s importance stating that “90 minutes” should not define the “four years” he has been president. But her spousal loyalty only undermined Biden further on social media. Praise for simply answering the questions made him look more incompetent. 

Veteran pollster Frank Luntz feels the damage is terminal. 

What this debate is going to do is give Trump a lead in every one of the swing states…If things stay as they are, Donald Trump is the next President of the United States and the Democrats have to come to grips with that. 

Will the Democrats heed his warning? The party apparatus has long dismissed concerns about Biden’s mental aptitude. Now the public can see that those widely circulated allegations are more than just pernicious rumours. With the next debate not until September 10th, replays of Biden’s gaffes will fill summer media coverage. Particularly as the Supreme Court’s immunity ruling will keep Trump’s legal troubles out of the headlines for now. 

The Democrats have a final chance to at least appear decisive. Remove Biden now and give another candidate five months to eat into Trump’s slim lead. Or they’re banking everything on Biden producing consistently coherent performances until November.    


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