‘A course correct’: How Biden resets his campaign since he’s likely not going anywhere

Benjamin Oreskes | (TNS) Los Angeles Times

President Joe Biden’s widely panned debate performance Thursday night in Atlanta has many prominent Democrats asking a simple question:

What do we do now?

Swapping out Biden for someone else is likely not possible — unless he quits the race himself. He’s won the requisite number of delegates to capture the Democratic nomination, and Biden said Friday at a rally that he was in the race to win. So now strategists and donors are mulling how the 81-year-old can reset his campaign and take the fight to former President Donald Trump.

Some said the president needed to take a moment to survey the damage. Others said it was important that he increase his campaign travel schedule, do more media availabilities and emphasize how he’s always been an underdog. Some added that he needed to acknowledge his years and what Father Time has wrought rather than act as though age weren’t an issue.

Finally, there was broad agreement that Biden needs to home in on a message that contrasts his values and those of Trump, whom they describe as vain and vindictive.

“Bad debate nights happen,” former President Barack Obama wrote on X. “Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

Guests at the Old Town Pour House watch the debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS) 

Biden missed a chance to hit that note Thursday, several strategists said. They had wanted him to pick an issue such as reproductive rights or the economy, for example, and stay far more focused on how Americans would be worse off if Trump returned to the White House. They want him to do the same moving forward.

The president’s campaign “definitely needs more to offer clarity on the larger message they’re trying to convey with respect to Trump and how horrible he is,” Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said Biden remained best positioned to lead the Democratic Party and that his past ability to overcome setbacks, tragedy and adversity offers a guide for how he should approach this moment.

Khanna, a frequent Biden surrogate on the campaign trail, suggested that the president stage a rally on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to evoke the image of Sylvester Stallone running up them in the iconic moment from the movie “Rocky.”

Biden has always styled himself as an underdog, and that shouldn’t change now, Khanna said. Thursday night’s debate was not Biden’s best showing, the congressman said, but doesn’t define him.

“Rocky wasn’t the most eloquent, but he was a fighter, and his eloquence was his character. I think that’s the line that we need to use: that Biden’s eloquence is his character,” Khanna told The Times.

“He needs to embrace the role of an underdog. He needs to embrace his role as having gotten knocked down in life and gotten back up,” Khanna said. “He’s not going to be a John F. Kennedy. He’s not going to be an Obama. He’s not going to be a Reagan. But he can be a Truman. He can be a Johnson. He can be a fighter.”

Being out among Americans right now is essential, Khanna added, suggesting that Biden barnstorm through the Midwest and meet with blue-collar workers and small-business owners.

Biden has done very few sit-down interviews or news conferences since taking office. He skipped the traditional Super Bowl halftime interview this year. In his first three years in office, Biden held 33 news conferences — half as many as Obama and fewer than Trump’s 52 over the same period, according to The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara.

On Thursday night, the reviews of President Biden flowing in after the 90-minute were generally bad, with one accompanied by seven head-exploding emojis. Even allies have acknowledged he appeared off his A game.

It was “Bad night for Trump — but worse night for Biden,” Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee delegate and daughter of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in a text message.

Biden “needs a course correct and a timely, long unscripted interview to show that this was a terrible debate — as Obama and Reagan both had with their first reelect debates — and not an ongoing condition,” she said.

One surprising element about Biden’s performance Thursday was how it differed from his energetic and forceful State of the Union Address in March. Biden was so strong that Trump and other Republicans suggested the president had been “jacked up” on drugs to perform so well.

But in the debate, Biden sounded hoarse and and at times struggled to complete sentences. Trump also spoke incoherently at times and, as fact-checkers pointed out, lied repeatedly. But Trump also spoke with more confidence, and the contrast in energy — Trump revved up, Biden halting — was startling to many viewers.

CNN announced that the debate averaged 51.3 million television viewers Thursday. The data do not include online viewing.

“I am very fond of ‘Joey Biden.’ But I believe he may well have done himself and those of us who understand what an effective president he has been existential damage,” said Joey Kaempfer, a real estate developer who has donated heavily to Democrats through the years. He has given close to $1 million to groups supporting Biden’s reelection and has dined with the president.

“We must be patient and see how the next week or two shakes out,” he said. “But yes, I am very concerned.”

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, with
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, with “Vote” printed on her dress, gesture to supporters during a campaign rally on Friday, June 28, 2024, in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images/TNS) 

At a rally Friday in North Carolina, Biden appeared to heed some of this advice, particularly from those who said he needed to more fulsomely address the fact that he’d be the oldest president in history by the end of his second term. He delivered his points with more gusto and clarity than the night before and sounded more cogent.

Biden continued to attack the lies and lack of empathy Trump espoused at the debate — pointing to his comments on abortion, immigration and respecting democracy — and contrasting them with the accomplishments of his administration’s first term. He also addressed his age.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” Biden said Friday. “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong, and I know how to do this job.

“I know, like millions of Americans know,” he said, “when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Biden at one point trumpeted his relationships with every world leader, “because I’ve been around, as you kind [of] have noticed,” which prompted laughs from the crowd. Exuding energy and not being defensive appeared to endear him to the supporters, and would it put him on a good path forward after the disastrous debate.

“Even with a great speech today — which I think is a good start — he needs many, many, of those, and he needs many many surrogates in the course of this,” former Republican strategist Matthew Dowd said on MSNBC.

There are 75 days until the next debate, he added, which means it will be a long time before many people tune into politics again. That’s a problem for Biden, Dowd said.

As if to address concerns about his stamina, Biden also attended two events Friday in New York City. The Associated Press reported that he joined Elton John in inaugurating a visitor center at the Stonewall National Monument, then attended a Pride Month fundraiser.

This was one of the earliest presidential debates in recent political history. Many analysts said it would focus voters’ attention on the race earlier and offer Biden a chance to shake up the trajectory.

Analysts had theorized that the Biden campaign also wanted an early debate because it would give him more time to repair any damage from a poor outing. That will now be put to the test.

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(L.A. Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.)

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