Politics

Biden's candidacy faces new peril, including first Senate Democrat saying he should exit race

WASHINGTON — (AP) — President Joe Biden's imperiled reelection campaign hit new trouble Wednesday as House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi said merely "it's up to the president to decide" if he should stay in the race, celebrity donor George Clooney said he should not run and Democratic senators and lawmakers expressed fresh fear about his ability to beat Republican Donald Trump.

Late in the evening, Vermont Sen. Peter Welch called on Biden to withdraw from the election, becoming the first Senate Democrat to do so. Welch said he is worried because “the stakes could not be higher.”

The sudden flurry of grave pronouncements despite Biden's determined insistence he is not leaving the 2024 race put on public display just how unsettled the question remains among prominent Democrats. On Capitol Hill, an eighth House Democrat, Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, and later a ninth, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, publicly asked Biden to step aside.

“I want him to do whatever he decides to do,” Pelosi said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” rather than declaring Biden should stay in. While Biden has said repeatedly that he’s made his decision, she said, “We’re all encouraging him to make that decision, because time is running short.”

It's a crucial moment for the president and his party, as Democrats consider what was once unthinkable — having the incumbent Biden step aside, just weeks before the Democratic National Convention that is on track to nominate him as their candidate for reelection.

Biden is hosting world leaders in Washington for the NATO summit this week with a crowded schedule of formal meetings, sideline chats and long diplomatic dinners, all opportunities to showcase he is up for the job despite a worrisome performance last month in the first presidential debate with Trump.

His party at a crossroads, Biden faces the next tests Thursday — in public, at a scheduled news conference that many Democrats will be watching for signs of his abilities, and privately, as his top advisers meet with the Senate Democratic caucus to discuss their concerns and shore up support.

Welch said in a Washington Post opinion piece published Wednesday evening, “We cannot unsee President Biden’s disastrous debate performance.”

The first-term senator said Vermont loves Biden and he was calling on the president to withdraw from the race “with sadness.”

To be sure, Biden maintains strong support from key corners of his coalition, particularly some in the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, whose leadership was instrumental in ushering the president to victory in 2020 and is standing by him as the country’s best choice to defeat Trump again in 2024.

“At this moment, the stakes are too high and we have to focus,” Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota told The Associated Press earlier in the week, saying Democrats are “losing ground” the longer they fight over Biden’s candidacy. “Democracy is on the line. Everything we value as Democrats, as a country, is on the line, and we have to stop being distracted.”

Pelosi has been widely watched for signals of how top Democrats are thinking about Biden's wounded candidacy, her comments viewed as important for the party's direction as members weigh possible alternatives in the campaign against Trump.

Because of her powerful position as the former House speaker and proximity to Biden as a trusted longtime ally of his generation, Pelosi is seen as one of the few Democratic leaders who could influence the president’s thinking.

The lack of a full statement from Pelosi backing Biden's continued campaign is what lawmakers are likely to hear most clearly, even as she told ABC later she believes he can win. Her remarks came as actor Clooney, who had just hosted a glitzy Hollywood fundraiser for the president last month, said in a New York Times op-ed that the Biden he saw three weeks ago wasn't the Joe Biden of 2020. "He was the same man we all witnessed at the debate."

Democrats have been reeling over whether to continue backing Biden after his poor showing in the June 27 debate and his campaign’s lackluster response to their pleas that Biden, at 81, show voters he is ready for another four-year term.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, spoke forcefully late Tuesday about the danger of a second Trump presidency and said it’s for the president “to consider” the options.

Stopping just short of calling for Biden to drop out, Bennet said on CNN what he told his colleagues in private — that he believes Trump “is on track to win this election — and maybe win it by a landslide and take with him the Senate and the House."

Bennet said, “It’s not a question about politics. It’s a moral question about the future of our country.”

By Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he was “deeply concerned” about Biden winning the election, which he called existential for the country.

“We have to reach a conclusion as soon as possible,” Blumenthal said on CNN.

And Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told reporters: “I have complete confidence that Joe Biden will do the patriotic thing for the country. And he's going to make that decision.”

Biden and his campaign are working more intently now to shore up support, and the president met with labor leaders Wednesday, relying on the unions to help make the case that his record in office matters more than his age.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Biden's campaign to address senators' concerns, and redoubled his backing of the president. “As I have made clear repeatedly publicly and privately, I support President Biden and remain committed to ensuring Donald Trump is defeated in November,” he said.

The president's team is sending senior Biden advisers Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, and Campaign Chair Jen O’Malley Dillon to meet with Democratic senators privately Thursday for a caucus lunch, according to both a Senate leadership aide and the Biden campaign.

There were some concerns, however, that it could backfire. One Democratic senator who requested anonymity to speak about the closed-door meeting said it could be a waste of time if Biden would not make the case to senators himself.

Pelosi said Biden “has been a great president” who is beloved and respected by House Democrats. The Californian said she watched as he delivered a forceful speech at the NATO summit Tuesday, and she recounted his many accomplishments.

While foreign leaders are in Washington this week and Biden is on the world stage hosting the event at a critical time in foreign affairs, Pelosi encouraged Democrats to “let’s just hold off” with any announcements about his campaign.

“Whatever you’re thinking, either tell somebody privately but you don’t have to put that out on the table until we see,” she said, how it goes “this week.”

___

Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Farnoush Amiri and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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