Biden’s Nato speech poses major test for his campaign as calls mount to step down

The Guardian   11/07/2024 14:54

Joe Biden was gearing up for one of the most pivotal press conferences of his long political career on Thursday in Washington as the growing number of Democratic party members calling on him to step down has turned the eyes of the world to his performance tonight.

The US president was scheduled to face journalists at a news conference marking the end of Nato’s 75th anniversary summit at 5.30pm, while across the city senators were preparing to meet key members of Biden’s staff at the White House to air their concerns about Biden’s electability following last month’s disastrous debate performance with Donald Trump.

The press conference, which will include questions from reporters, is certain to be scrutinised minutely for any signs of verbal slip-up or mental frailty resembling those Biden displayed in the debate.

The event is the kind of unscripted set piece that Biden’s staff stand accused of shielding him from, and any repeat of the calamitous debate display could turn the steady trickle of public calls for Biden to stand aside into a flood.

Some of Biden’s most loyal acolytes at the top of the Democratic party have issued less than full-throated statements of support in recent days.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, who has repeated the mantra “I’m for Joe” throughout the crisis, was reported to have signalled openness to having the president replaced at the top of the presidential ticket.

Axios reported that Schumer had been taking close account of the feelings of party donors and fellow senators in the 12 days since Biden’s meltdown in the 27 June debate, when he plunged the viability of his candidacy into doubt by abjectly failing to defend his own policies or counter Trump’s lies.

“As I have made clear repeatedly publicly and privately, I support President Biden and remain committed to ensuring Donald Trump is defeated in November,” Schumer said, in comments that fell short of a ringing endorsement. On Wednesday, Peter Welch of Vermont became the first Democratic senator to publicly tell Biden to step aside. Nine members of the House of Representatives have already done so.

“He saved us from Donald Trump once and wants to do it again. But he needs to reassess whether he is the best candidate to do so. In my view, he is not,” Welch wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece.

The president retains the support of Democratic governors, senators in the vital swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Black Congressional caucus, key progressive House members including Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and many others.

But the meeting between senators and Biden staff on Thursday will take place against the backdrop of backstage manoeuvring. The former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, added pressure on Biden on Wednesday by telling MSNBC that it was up to the president to decide and “we are encouraging him to make that decision”. Behind the scenes, Pelosi has reportedly told Democratic Congress members that Biden cannot win the election and should stop aside, according to Politico.

She has also reportedly encouraged Democrats in swing districts threatened with losing their seats in November to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves, including calling on Biden to stand aside, while suggesting to others in safer districts that they should approach the White House directly with their concerns.

Crucially, she is also said to have advised members to wait until the end of today’s Nato gathering before going public. Some Congress members were understood to have drafted statements, ready to release as soon as the gathering of international leaders left Washington.

A fresh Washington Post-ABC News-Ipsos poll showed 56% of Democratic voters agreeing that Biden should end his campaign, against 42% who said he should stay put – a finding that undermined the president’s assertion that the effort to oust him was led by “elites” in the party.

Biden has held fewer news conferences with journalists in his three and a half years in office than any president since Ronald Reagan.

A previous press conference at the White House in February to counter criticisms by Robert Hur, a special prosecutor who criticised the president’s “poor memory”, backfired somewhat when Biden referred to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as “the president of Mexico”.