Inside Joe Biden's Debate Disaster

As President Joe Biden was going over his final notes with his inner circle and getting ready to debate Donald Trump on June 27 in Atlanta, his wife slipped into a nearby meeting of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors. The Biden Victory Fund and the Democratic National Committee’s financial bigwigs had all assembled in the Ritz Carlton as part of a two-day political briefing that featured emotional pep talks and face-time with VIPs. “Joe’s ready to go,” Dr. Biden told the group. "He’s prepared."

Fact check: false.

Before midnight, Joe Biden would slog through 90 minutes of a debate against Trump that even Biden’s closest allies privately admitted was a disaster. Biden appeared every bit the 81-year-old grandfather that he is, stammering with a thin voice through unintelligible arguments and often staring blankly, mouth agape, as Trump lobbed one verbal attack after another. Biden froze up repeatedly and fumbled even some set-piece lines he had prepared in advance for the moment. When fielding a question about the national debt, his answer was incomprehensible as he seemed to be trying to argue for super-rich Americans paying more taxes. "We'd be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do—childcare, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we're able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I've been able to do with the—with, with, with the COVID. Excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with—look, if—we finally beat Medicare."

<span class="copyright">Photo-illustration by TIME; Getty Images (2)</span>
Photo-illustration by TIME; Getty Images (2)

Panic is not too strong a word to describe the sentiment that coursed through the Democratic Party from top to bottom as the debate unfolded. “What the actual f— is happening?” one Democratic fundraiser texted. Across the room another sent along something of a distress call and a hostage video at once: “This won’t be as bad for voters as it is for us, right?” From progressive to pragmatist, the verdict among Democrats was perhaps the most united the party’s upper ranks have been in decades. “Unintelligible must have been the [closed captioning],” for the entirety of Biden’s performance, another senior Democrat strategist mused. “It would have been the most honest.” Almost immediately after it was over, Democrats started asking whether and how Biden could be convinced to bow out for the good of the party, for the nation, and for the candidate himself.

Biden loyalists rushed into the breach. Vice President Kamala Harris did a round of scheduled late-night cable hits, making her best effort at staving off party activists’ dreams of ditching Biden, and maybe Harris as well. Biden’s team publicly insisted that the night was just one of many, and that the candidate was absolutely, 100% up for another four years. As proof, they stuck to their plan for after the debate, sending him to a watch party at the Hyatt Regency on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street for 45 minutes of selfies before a midnight drop-in at a Waffle House on his way to an Atlanta airfield for a quick jump up to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d campaign the next day. Air Force One landed just before 2 a.m. The next day, the nation's most popular senior Democrat, Barack Obama, told his allies to back off Biden. "Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know," Biden's former boss messaged.

But the reality remains: everyone in America who tuned in to the debate could see for themselves how Biden has aged. Already locked into what is at best a neck-and-neck race with Trump, Biden’s path to victory suddenly seemed to be turning into a dead-end before Democrats’ eyes. That left the party asking two questions. Was there any way to get him off the ticket? And if not, was there any chance to stagger across the finish line with a deeply flawed candidate? Either way, it was nothing like what Biden and his team had plotted while secluded at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland’s mountains for six full days of rehearsal in an airplane hangar and movie theater. For all the talk about the most successful first-term agenda ever and a history-defying midterm election, Biden's team spent the wee hours of Thursday and all of Friday trying to talk Democrats off a ledge.

When a candidate biffs, it’s expected that a loyal aide will take the fall. And few have more experience in throwing people under the bus than Joe Biden. When his first campaign imploded over the summer of 1987, a young aide and future Democratic National Committee Chairman named David Wilhelm took the blame for passing along a British Labor Leader’s speeches that Biden cribbed on a debate stage. When his third bid for the job finished in fourth place in lead-off Iowa, Biden removed his longtime aide and campaign manager Greg Schultz as the entourage slowly navigated icy New Hampshire roads on the way to a debate site. With the never-ending investigations about his son’s involvement with dodgy business partners, Biden blamed his staff for not flagging the potential conflicts of interest sooner. And when classified documents were recovered in his personal possession, it was again the help’s fault.

But this time, blame can only go so far beyond the president himself and his closest family members. No one can say that what happened in Atlanta was unexpected. Voters have been consistent in telling pollsters they’re worried about the ages of both candidates. Almost two-thirds of the nation thinks both Trump and Biden are too old for the job, according to Ipsos polling. Another one-quarter thinks Biden is too old. Separate polling from Gallup finds just 22% of Americans say they’re satisfied with the direction of the country, a number that puts Biden in the danger zone. Around this time in 2020, Trump was at 20% and lost while Barack Obama was at the same level at this leg of the 2012 marathon and kept his job. In 1992, as George H.W. Bush was seeking a second term as President, that number stood at 14%; he lost that three-way race.

And it’s not like no one had been trying to warn of this exact scenario. Senior Democrats had been telling their peers that Biden is missing a step and not the best version of himself. Obama insiders like David Axelrod and David Plouffe had been cautioning donors and operatives alike that Biden was a risky bet and the party needed new blood. But raising the age question was grounds for excommunication from the high command of the Biden orbit. Dark stories swirled among those with access to the Biden’s top advisors of one close aide who raised the issue of age and was summarily iced out.

Immediately after the debate there was talk of an uprising, with unnamed Hill Democrats, wary of their own electoral vulnerability, swearing that this time an intervention by party leaders would be unleashed. But if Biden had resisted talk of a one-term presidency when the opportunity gracefully to step aside was available, he was even better positioned to hold his ground now. The rules of the Democratic party make it almost impossible to replace Biden atop the ticket unless he voluntarily steps aside. Biden currently has 3,894 of the nearly 4,000 estimated pledged delegates so far, most of whom are required to stick with him through the first round of voting, which will be held virtually online ahead of the Democratic National Convention. Some 25% of delegates at the convention would be needed to hold a vote opening the way to another candidate’s chance to be the nominee. That remains very unlikely.

“Things are dark. No doubt about it,” says one hand who has been sitting in the West Wing since Day One. “But onward. That’s the only option that’s on the table.”

If Biden could be convinced to step aside there would be chaos inside the party unlike anything since 1968. Vice President Kamala Harris would start with advantages of incumbency, but her approval number is low and she would be vulnerable to a challenge. Prominent contenders, nominally jockeying for 2028 but all quietly talked about as possible Biden replacements in 2024, include Governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.

The Trump campaign, for their part, seems delighted with the status quo. "Democrats are stuck with Joe Biden whether they like it or not," says Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump-allied GOP consultant. That's probably true, and the former president's team was making the most of it in the wake of the debate. "Joe Biden forgot that 13 heroes died in Afghanistan and thinks there is an epidemic of sister-on-sister rape. He should not be anywhere near the nuclear briefcase. It's never been more clear that President Donald Trump's strength is needed back in the White House," Bruesewitz says.

To quiet the fears, Biden had to acknowledge the error. "Begrudgingly Biden isn’t really a yard sign I want," a donor-strategist put it on Friday. The campaign doubled down on its resolve, circulating positive reviews from allies. And they remain convinced that Trump is an unlikeable figure who won over no voters with his haphazard showing at the debate. In the cold light of morning, campaign chief Jen O'Malley Dillon dropped by the Atlanta Ritz to buck-up the donors. “The campaign leadership put it all in context and supporters left feeling better than last night,” says Noah Mamet, a former Ambassador to Argentina. “Supporters were telling each other it could have been better but no bed wetting, it’s time to focus.” In the upper ranks of the Biden orbit, there was no point adding gloss. "This election was never going to be won or lost in one rally, one conversation, or one debate," a senior adviser says. "We have a largely locked-in electorate and two well-defined candidates—and the voters who will decide this election are going to require consistent time and effort to win for November."

Biden went to work delivering that vision on Friday in North Carolina, telling his crowd he understood the panic inside the party and then firmly rejecting it. “Folks, let me close with this: I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” Biden deadpanned in Raleigh as he launched into a mea culpa donors were demanding and strategists were hoping he understood. “I don’t debate as well as I used to. I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. I know what millions of Americans know: when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

True, Biden has been knocked down plenty in his career, but sometimes it's best to stay on the canvas. “Folks, I give my word as a Biden: I would not be running again if I didn’t believe with all my heart and soul I can do this job,” he said. For many Democrats who watched the debate, the problem is that what Biden believes is starting to look more and more at odds with reality.

With reporting by Eric Cortellessa

Write to Philip Elliott at