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Biden’s less than stellar debate performance has the Democratic party concerned

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

President Biden's debate performance last night was halting. His voice was raspy. At times, he appeared to lose his train of thought. Even Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans described the high-stakes night as devastating. Today, at a much more high-energy rally in North Carolina, Biden acknowledged he had faltered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don't walk as easy as I used to. I don't speak as smoothly as I used to. I don't debate as well as I used to. Well, I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job.

DETROW: This was the earliest televised general election debate in history. The next one is not scheduled until September, if it even happens. So where does the campaign go from here? NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins me now. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So amid all the Democratic freakouts I have seen in my career, this is certainly the biggest one. What in this environment did Biden have to say at this rally today?

KEITH: The rally speech was in front of a very hyped crowd, unlike last night's debate with no audience. And it was everything that Biden's debate performance was not. You know, it's like when someone insults you, and then hours later, you think of all the comebacks you should have said earlier.

DETROW: Yes.

KEITH: That is basically what Biden was doing today in this more scripted format. He hit Trump on politicy and personality. He called him a convicted felon. Biden talked about what he plans to do to make voters' lives better if he gets a second term. He talked about abortion rights and democracy much more clearly than he did last night. And he slammed Trump for trying to rewrite history of what happened on January 6, for failing to answer when pressed repeatedly on whether he would accept the results of the 2024 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Now, folks, I don't know what you did last night, but I spent 90 minutes on the stage debating a guy who has the morals of an alley cat.

KEITH: One top Democrat texted me this afternoon, quote, "what a difference a rally can make."

DETROW: But, just like the person you think of the response to isn't around when you think of the zinger, millions and millions and millions of people were watching last night, much fewer people watching a midday rally today. There's been so much hand-wringing among Democrats since the debate, asking whether Biden should step aside. How is his campaign reacting to that?

KEITH: They are putting their heads down and pushing forward. I asked a campaign directly - a campaign official directly whether Biden should step aside, and his response was, absolutely not. The Biden campaign has always acknowledged that Joe Biden is old, sometimes more defensively than others. He's 81 years old. Every day, he gets older, that is something they can't change. And yes, they say Biden did not have a great debate performance, but that doesn't change who he is, and it doesn't change who his opponent is. That's the message they're settling on. They want this to be a referendum on Trump, and they feel that the debate at least reminded some people of who Trump is and what he believes.

DETROW: I think a big storyline in the last decade is that the professional political class is often out of step with voters. Do we have a sense yet how this is hitting voters?

KEITH: You know, it's obviously really early. And it's hard to know whether this will be one bad news cycle or whether it will become weeks of trouble for Biden. But talking to voters this year, concern about the president's age was ever present. And a lot of people were not even convinced he was really running, even though he obviously was and had cleared the field of Democratic competition. So for a lot of voters, Biden's performance last night was in line with very low expectations, which has been showing up all year in places like his stubbornly low approval rating.

DETROW: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

DETROW: We're going to turn now to NPR correspondent Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress. And she's been looking at how Biden's performance of the debate could affect control of the House and Senate, which, of course, are also up for grabs in November. There is concern among some of the Democrats running alongside him that their efforts to keep the Senate and flip control of the House could be in peril. Deirdre joins us from the Capitol, where she talked to a lot of Democrats today. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: What are you hearing?

WALSH: The mood was pretty low among House Democrats today. I mean, the ones that I did talk to or did agree to talk to reporters did not sugarcoat that things went off the rails early on for President Biden during the debate, that he struggled to respond forcefully to former President Trump. Many House Democrats acknowledged that Biden didn't make the contrast with Trump that they were hoping, and he didn't deliver a coherent message about his agenda. New York Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks said, coming off the House floor, there was anxiety among House Democrats, and people were disappointed.

GREGORY MEEKS: I know Joe Biden. I've sat across the room from Joe Biden in some very important meetings. And I know that he's all there and he has the ability to do that. He did not do that last night.

DETROW: What about specifically Democrats in competitive races? Are they worried that this could hurt their chances?

WALSH: I mean, some admitted it wasn't a good night, but they were also frustrated that there wasn't more media focus on Trump's performance and that he was the one that needed to be fact-checked more. Democratic Congresswoman Susan Wild is running for reelection in a swing district in Pennsylvania. She was not eager to discuss Biden, but when reporters tried, she instead tried to focus on Trump and what she called his string of lies.

One thing Democratic strategists have been pointing out to me today is that Democratic candidates and incumbents in key swing state Senate races in places like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin have been outperforming Biden in the polls in those states. House Democrats are seeing similar trends in some of these swing House districts. It's really unclear if that's going to continue. But some of these Democrats are saying that this is a sign that voters may not be linking all Democrats to the top of the ticket.

DETROW: One of the stories of this race is that there's such low interest from voters across the country. Last night was a rare moment where a lot of people were tuning in. Do the people you talk to think that Biden can come back from this?

WALSH: They do. They really want him to pivot, do more public events, do town halls, engage more directly with voters around the country. Missouri Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver told me Biden wasn't as aggressive as he hoped, but he said he could come back from it.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: The die is not cast based on that debate. And, you know, recovery is always possible.

WALSH: Congress is now on recess for Fourth of July. Democrats are going to go home and talk to voters. But, you know, as Tam has been saying and other people have been saying, Democrats already knew this was going to be a close election. Last night's debate, just for them, reinforced that they have to keep working hard to make their case about their agenda, the president's agenda and Republicans' and Trump's.

DETROW: Key question amid all of this, how serious is the conversation about replacing Biden?

WALSH: It's not serious with top Democrats. They are sticking with Biden. I talked to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries about this idea some Democrats are floating about another nominee. He says that is not his position. He said he believes Democrats can still win back the House with Biden on the ticket.

A lot of Democrats are saying, you know, people need to not overreact, that there's time for Biden to make his case in these campaign events. But, Scott, there are still some Democrats, some of those in swing districts, who are not ruling out looking at what the process is. They said it's complicated. The reality is doing anything at this stage in the campaign is not realistic. The party would have to coalesce around an alternative, and they admit there's really no consensus about that. The convention starts on August 19.

DETROW: Right. The primary season is over, and the convention is just weeks away. NPR's Deirdre Walsh, thank you so much.

WALSH: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.