Biden Tells Allies He Knows He Has Only Days to Salvage Candidacy


President Biden has told key allies that he knows the coming days are crucial and understands that he may not be able to salvage his candidacy if he cannot convince voters that he is up to the job after a disastrous debate performance last week.

According to two allies who have spoken with him, Mr. Biden has emphasized that he is still deeply committed to the fight for re-election but understands that his viability as a candidate is on the line.

The president sought to project confidence on Wednesday in a call with his campaign staff, even as White House officials were trying to calm nerves among the ranks inside the Biden administration.

“No one’s pushing me out,” Mr. Biden said in the call. “I’m not leaving.”

Vice President Kamala Harris was also on the line.

“We will not back down. We will follow our president’s lead,” she said. “We will fight, and we will win.”

Still, Mr. Biden’s allies said that the president had privately acknowledged that his next few appearances heading into the July 4 holiday weekend must go well, particularly an interview scheduled for Friday with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News and campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“He knows if he has two more events like that, we’re in a different place” by the end of the weekend, said one of the allies, referring to Mr. Biden’s halting and unfocused performance in the debate. That person, who talked to the president in the past 24 hours, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive situation.

The accounts of his conversations with allies are the first indication to become public that the president is seriously considering whether he can recover after a devastating performance on the debate stage in Atlanta last Thursday.

A new poll from The New York Times and Siena College showed that former President Donald J. Trump now leads Mr. Biden 49 percent to 43 percent among likely voters nationally, a three-point swing toward the Republican from just a week earlier, before the debate. The six-point deficit underscored the growing challenges to the campaign and could make it harder to hang on, although some insiders had worried that it could have been worse.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said that the president told her directly that he had not talked to allies about dropping out of the race.

“That is absolutely false,” she said during the briefing. While batting down speculation about Mr. Biden stepping down, Ms. Jean-Pierre also referred to Ms. Harris, who is seeing a surge of support among Democrats, as “the future of the party.”

One of Mr. Biden’s allies, a top adviser to him, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president was “well aware of the political challenge he faces.”

That person said Mr. Biden was aware that the outcome of his campaign could be different from what he is fighting for. Mr. Biden, that person said, believes he is an effective leader who is mentally sharp and “doesn’t get how others don’t accept that.”

The Times reported on Tuesday that several current and former officials and others who encountered the president behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations, in the weeks and months before the debate.

Mr. Biden still adamantly views his debate showing as a bad performance, the person said, not a revelatory event about his capacity to do the job for four more years.

Key party donors have been privately calling House members, senators, super PACs, the Biden campaign and the White House to say that they think Mr. Biden should step down, according to Democrats familiar with the discussion. On Wednesday, Reed Hastings, the Netflix co-founder who in recent years has become one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party, called on Mr. Biden to relinquish his place at the top of the ticket.

“Biden needs to step aside to allow a vigorous Democratic leader to beat Trump and keep us safe and prosperous,” he said in an email to The Times.

An elected Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the political sensitivities, said the decision was still ultimately up to Mr. Biden. “The only thing that matters is his decision on whether or not he’s going to let it go,” that person said.

Inside the White House, senior officials tried to calm nerves in a staff-wide conference call. Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, told members of the president’s staff that they should keep their heads down and “execute, execute, execute.” Mr. Zients also told them to “hold their heads up” and be proud, a contradiction that he admitted had an element of humor to it.

Later in the day, Mr. Zients appeared on a separate call, a weekly check-in among Mr. Biden’s cabinet officials, and echoed much of the talking points he shared with staff members, according to a person familiar with the call.

Mr. Biden had been slow to personally reach out to key Democrats to assuage their concerns, which had fueled anger in the party and frustrated some of his own advisers.

According to Ms. Jean-Pierre, the president has now “connected with” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader in the House; Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the former speaker; Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina; and Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

The president had lunch with Ms. Harris at the White House, and later the pair met with Democratic governors. Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota told reporters at the White House that the group had an “honest” conversation with the president, and that the governors “have his back.”

Mr. Walz, who also declared the president “fit for office,” added, “A path to victory in November is the No. 1 priority, and that’s the No. 1 priority of the president.”

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were not urging their members to rally around Mr. Biden on Wednesday. Instead, they were listening to myriad complaints about the president’s handling of the situation from across the party, including its centrist wing and its progressives. Key donors expressed exasperation that he did not join a campaign call on Monday meant to assuage them. And some Democrats have grown increasingly suspicious that the president’s team has not been fully forthcoming about the impact that aging has had on him.

Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said during an interview on MSNBC that Mr. Biden still must do more to address the public rather than continue to huddle with advisers.

“He’s got to show the American people that he can do this job,” she said. “He can’t be wrapped in bubble right now.”

Several allies of Mr. Biden have underscored that he is still in the fight of his political life and that he largely sees this moment as a chance to come back from being counted out, as he has done many times throughout his half-century career. At the same time, they said, he is cleareyed about how uphill the battle will be to convince voters, donors and the political class that his debate performance was an anomaly and is not disqualifying.

Some of the president’s advisers have grown increasingly pessimistic in the past day or so as unrest in the party has continued to grow, a reflection of unhappiness not just over the debate performance but the handling of it since then.

Much of Mr. Biden’s family, including his son Hunter Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, remain supportive of the president continuing his campaign.

“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, Mich., “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.”

Mr. Biden’s team had sought to build a firewall by persuading elected Democrats and well-known party figures not to publicly call on him to drop out.

But Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first Democratic member of Congress to say on Tuesday that the president should step aside. Two others — Representatives Jared Golden of Maine and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington — said they believed he would lose in November.

In a statement on Wednesday evening, Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, cast doubt over Mr. Biden’s chances of winning in November.

“I deeply respect President Biden and all the great things he has done for America, but I have grave concerns about his ability to defeat Donald Trump,” he said. “Winning will require prosecuting the case in the media, in town halls and at campaign stops all over the country. President Biden needs to demonstrate that he can do that. The unfortunate reality is that the status quo will likely deliver us President Trump.”

Others have indicated privately that they may follow suit and speak out.

Peter Baker, Nicholas Nehamas, Simon J. Levien, Michael D. Shear Mitch Smith, Theodore Schleifer and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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