What to Watch For as Biden Doubles Down Amid Party Panic

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The fever didn’t break over the weekend. In fact, it only worsened.

Since President Joe Biden’s calamitous showing Thursday night during a debate against former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, Democrats have been in the midst of a very public freak-out. The anxiety is apparent at all levels of the party, from the activists who power campaign infrastructure to the donors who fund it to the vaunted elders who bless it. The talks have veered from pressuring Biden to step aside all the way to blocking him from the nomination.

Campaign chief Jen O’Malley Dillon began the clean-up operation on Friday at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta with a presentation on the state of the race and the path going forward, along with a candid acknowledgement that the night before was not a high point. She was still mopping up the mess on Monday, hastily convening major donors on a call to calm nerves. Everyone below her had their version of the same script: the contours of the campaign would not be shaped solely based on a single 90-minute meltdown when the nation should be comparing Biden’s half-century record of accomplishments to the four-year chaos that unfolded with Donald Trump at the helm.

Little of it was landing as hoped.

Biden spent Sunday and Monday secluded at Camp David in Maryland’s mountains and has a relatively light public schedule this week. A last-minute addition to Biden’s schedule came Monday night: comments from the White House on the Supreme Court’s ruling on how much immunnity Trump enjoyed while he was President. A Cabinet meeting previously planned for Wednesday was scrapped; the official line was that so many members were planning to be out of town but Democrats largely rolled their eyes at that rationale.

Meanwhile, the party continued its navelgazing and silent screaming. Here are the six things to watch for as Democrats try to maneuver through this crisis in the coming days:

Does Jill Biden waver?

At this point, the Democratic National Committee rules leave little wiggle room for anyone but Biden to be the party’s nominee. But that changes if Biden voluntarily chooses to step aside. That’s where a lot of backroom discussions are unfolding to gauge the possibility of such an outcome. Can Biden be talked out of a second term? Is there a better way to spend his 80s? What—or who—could convince him to stand aside?

The answer to that last question has come down to one person and one person alone: First Lady Jill Biden. If Dr. Biden were to feel her husband were doing irreparable harm to himself and his core calling, she would privately tell him. Those close to Dr. Biden say she’s not there yet.

"So let's talk about last night 's debate, because I know it's on your minds,” she said Friday at a fundraiser in a Greenwich Village brownstone. "As Joe said earlier today, he's not a young man. And you know, after last night's debate, he said, 'You know, Jill, I don't know what happened. I didn't feel that great.' And I said, 'Look, Joe, we are not going to let 90 minutes define the four years that you've been president.'"

Advisers say the broader Biden brood over the weekend urged the President to keep the faith and fight back against what it sees as ageist bullies. They all know the legend of the failed 1988 campaign that saw Biden exit in 1987 amid a plagiarism scandal. By bowing out, Biden effectively confirmed he was a plagiarist and fabulist to Washington. They do not want to repeat that episode if they can avoid it. (They also started to blame staff, never a sign of a health campaign orbit.)

Can major donors be calmed down?

Since the moment the debate ended, the Biden camp’s leaders have been a steady diet of calls with donors and insiders alike to try to calm the panic. The President himself has been involved in some of this, making previously scheduled meetings over the weekend with the monied set in the greater New York area. And on Monday, campaign leaders hastily convened a call with the Democratic National Committee’s finance committee. The overlying message: We get it, bad nights happen, but Biden is moving forward.

The next big moment is set for Wednesday, when many Democrats were slated to join Biden at a private fundraiser in suburban D.C. Who shows up, and who suddenly finds themselves otherwise occupied, could signal how much the party’s biggest names are confident that Biden will remain the nominee.

Will Bill or Barack do more to help Joe?

There are perhaps few voices beyond his family that Biden would heed more than his Democratic predecessors in the Oval Office. Which is why, last year, Barack Obama told Biden that his re-election bid wasn’t where it needed to be. Bill Clinton is just as frustrated, although his frustrations take on a patina of grievance given Hillary Clinton’s almost-there loss in 2016.

Publicly, both men have signaled support for Biden’s continued chase of a second term. They both understand how tough the slog of re-election can be, especially when paired with the day-to-day task of running the country. Privately, though, they are telling former aides and advisers that Biden is heading toward a one-term legacy unless things change dramatically.

Does Kamala start looking more viable?

Vice President Kamala Harris is the most logical understudy for the nomination. But Democrats aren’t exactly rushing to move her to the top of the ticket for a whole host of reasons: her 2020 bid didn’t even make it to the Iowa caucus, Republicans absolutely loathe her, and she’s frankly untested as the marquee name on a ballot. (That said, her approval ratings may be underwater, but she’s less toxic than Biden by about 8 percentage points.)

Then there’s the harsh reality of identity politics. The Democratic Party cannot afford to flake voters of color or women. Ditching the first Black and Asian-American woman to hold the office of Vice President risks irrevocably alienating both.

Since joining Team Biden in 2020, Harris has been one of the most misused political tools in the President’s arsenal. It’s all the more baffling after watching Harris over the last year blow the doors off at public events—particularly with college audiences, women and voters of color. While Harris’ team has been plagued by dysfunction—and, to be fair, the blame starts at the top—there has been little help from the West Wing to iron out the tricky work of being a supporting figure without outshining the boss.

A crucial point quietly being made often by Harris defenders: if she were to ascend to the top of the ticket, all of Biden’s cash could easily transfer to her operation. Because it has, from the start, been the Biden-Harris re-election, there are essentially no campaign finance issues. If it were anyone else taking over the nomination, the heir campaigns would face the same donation limits placed on any other campaign committee. With some creative structuring, there would still be ways to use much of Biden’s warchest toward helping a new nominee, but it would likely be a far cry from the $231 million and counting that Biden has raised in hard cash.

Do any other prominent Democrats make a move?

For the first time in a minute, the Democratic bench actually looks solid. But no one is rushing off of it just yet.

Democratic Govs. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Gavin Newsom of California, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan are some of the buzziest names in the mix at the moment—so much so that the latter phoned Biden’s top hand to tell her that the 2024 chatter was not coming from her folks. Others like Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, and California Rep. Ro Khanna are also being discussed as potential players. And the likes of 2020 runners-up Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker have lost none of their ambition.

In public, all are joining the former Presidents in expressing support for Biden and a second term. None of them has a political operation capable of quietly prying the delegates away from Biden without a public brawl. And if Biden is going to remain the nominee as expected, there is zero upside of bloodying the nominee.

Still, no Democrat can be seen to be disengaged in the quest to keep Biden in office. (At least, no Democrat except Michelle Obama, who reportedly is not interested in campaigning for him over a disagreement over how the Biden family treated a messy family split. Plus, she has open contempt for partisan politics and has the privilege of dodging the whole affair for now.)

What will the next batch of polls say?

All of Washington is waiting for a better sense of how the debate has resonated with voters, if at all. Over the weekend, CBS News’ polling found almost three-quarters of the electorate harbored doubts about Biden’s cognitive abilities. Almost half of Democrats in the same poll would prefer he weren’t the nominee. A separate USA Today survey shows 41% of Democrats telling pollsters the party should replace Biden—including 37% of voters who say they will vote for him if he’s the nominee.

Biden’s high command continues to insist polls reflect a moment and not a movement. But electorates tend to have short memories for success, but longer ones for errors. Bush’s polling never really recovered after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. No one died from Biden’s debate showing, but you might not know it from the rolling recriminations unfolding over text messages throughout the party’s rank and file.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.