Congressional Dems urge a more robust Biden on the campaign trail, but few openly revolt

An image of the Democratic Donkey

by Jennifer Shutt, Georgia Recorder, [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

July 9, 2024

Democrats in Congress called on President Joe Biden to prove to voters that he is up for another four years in the Oval Office, though many in interviews pledged to stick with him as the presumptive nominee as they returned to the Capitol on Monday following the Fourth of July recess.

Questions over Biden’s ability to continue with his reelection campaign dominated the nation’s capital throughout the day. Biden shipped a defiant letter to Hill Democrats and unexpectedly called in to a popular morning MSNBC show to make his case. At the White House, reporters engaged in a tense back-and-forth with Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre over the president’s mental fitness.

Most significantly, the comments about Biden’s future from more than 20 lawmakers came just ahead of crucial meetings Tuesday, when Senate and House Democrats will huddle separately to work out the path ahead for Biden’s reelection bid.

The decision about whether to back Biden is especially tough for vulnerable senators, who are seeking to hold the chamber against long odds, and House members from swing districts full of Republican voters.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close confidant to Biden, defended the president when asked by States Newsroom whether Biden can steer the narrative back to policy issues and away from questions about his cognitive function, following his shaky debate performance on June 27.

“I’m really struck no one’s asked me a question about should Donald Trump drop out, should Donald Trump have a neurological exam, should Donald Trump be facing Republicans calling for him to step aside given his demonstrably immoral, unhinged conduct? He’s a convict,” Coons said, referring to the former president and presumptive GOP nominee. “In my view, Joe Biden has won our primaries, has won our confidence and deserves our support.”

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said Democrats must be level-headed about whether to encourage Biden to withdraw as their presumptive nominee, arguing that it is now more of a moral question than a political one.

“I think it is really important for us, as Democrats, to have an open discussion and to have an open debate to ensure that we are on a path to winning the White House, to winning the Senate, to winning the House,” Bennet said. “And I think that’s an act, not of disloyalty, but an act of loyalty.”

This year’s election is especially critical for Democrats in swing districts and purple states, and party leaders need to ensure the top of the ticket can help those people, not hinder them, said Bennet, who is not up for reelection.

Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico said she wants House Democrats to unify at Tuesday morning’s party meeting.

“My hope is that Democrats come to a reasonable consensus about the path forward, which is that we have to defeat Donald Trump,” Stansbury said.

“And right now we’ve got to work like hell to make sure that people understand the consequences of reelecting Donald Trump. He is a convicted felon, he is a perpetrator in the January 6th (attack), he is all the things that we know he is. And so while I understand the media focus on the current moment, we really need to shift back to the real danger,” Stansbury said.

The unease among congressional Democrats came after a handful of senior House Democrats on Sunday said Biden should step down on a private phone call with Democratic leaders, according to media reports. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington publicly called on Biden to exit the race Monday.

The Biden defenders

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said his confidence in Biden is “high,” but he understands “the reality of the challenges that he faces and we face since the debate.”

“It’s raised a national discussion about his competence and the ability to finish the campaign,” Durbin said.

The Illinois lawmaker said he has been discussing alternatives to Biden with colleagues, but so far hasn’t heard a name he’s willing to endorse publicly.

Durbin said he does worry that if Biden remains the nominee, the focus will stay on his health and not on the issues that Democrats want to be front and center in the campaign.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said he told voters in his home state over the Fourth of July week that he respects Biden and “never had reason to question his ability to be a patriot, put the country first. And I’m sure he’ll make a decision that does that.”

“And that decision is going to be one that I support,” he said.

Kaine said that Biden often does better talking to smaller groups of voters and suggested his campaign get him in that setting more often, if they want to alleviate concerns.

“Okay, he had a bad debate performance. But when he interacts with everyday folks who are going through challenges, talking about their aspirations and how to achieve them, that’s his strong suit,” Kaine said. “And I’ve seen him do that again and again and again. And I hope the campaign will find ways for him to do that because he does it better than anybody.”

California Rep. Ami Bera said Biden has a pretty good chance to outrun his debate performance, especially considering all the bad headlines that came out during the 2016 Trump campaign.

“Donald Trump came back from ‘Access Hollywood,’ right?” Bera said. “So there’s a long time in this campaign cycle. It was always going to be a close race, but it’s going to be hard if we’re not on the same page.”

Bera called on Biden to meet with Democrats in Congress and for the party to be honest about polling and fundraising.

“I think that the debate was not a good debate. It was one that gave a lot of folks pause,” Bera said. “But the president has said he’s committed to running. At this juncture, having a divided house doesn’t make sense. That’s why my advice is, he ought to come to the Democrats or ought to invite us to meet with him somewhere else. And we all ought to get on the same page.”

Congressional Black Caucus chair supportive of Biden

Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who also chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said he decided to support Biden’s ongoing candidacy after talking with voters in his district.

“I’m a frontline member in a battleground state. I have as tough of a district as anyone here in the House and I’ve been a frontliner for the last three cycles,” Horsford said. “What my constituents have said is they voted for President Joe Biden, and they expect their representative to honor their vote and the will of the people. And there’s a process and that process should not be overturned by a few select members in Congress.”

Sen. Alex Padilla of California said he remains steadfast in his support for Biden.

“I would encourage my colleagues to take all the time and energy that we’re spending on this topic and put it into voter outreach and organizing for November,” he said.

New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján said he continues to back Biden and is confident that he will win reelection in November.

“What I want to see is President Biden out and about, like we saw this weekend, talking to more people at rallies and areas and just being himself,” Luján said. “I think that he’s the best when he’s just himself and chatting with people.”

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Nanette Barragán said she supports Biden and isn’t focused on what the risk could be if voters don’t gain more confidence in his health.

“I think he can win. He has won. He has ideas. He’s got plans,” Barragán said. “When I talk to people, even people who’ve been undecided have said ‘The president has ideas and he has a track record. The other person is just going up there and telling lies.’”

Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said that she continues to back Biden because of his record while in the White House.

“He’s been there every step of the way supporting Nevadans as we came through the pandemic, as we fight for a woman’s right to choose, as we lower costs for families, and fighting for affordable housing,” Cortez Masto said. “He’s been on the picket lines with so many in my state. So at the end of the day, I know he’s good for Nevada, and so I stand with him.”

More defenders

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Democrats have “a lot of work to do” to get Biden reelected in November, but said “that’s always the case.”

And while the debate was a “rough night,” he said, there will be many more of those if Trump is reelected president in November.

“You want a lot of rough nights? You’re gonna get four years of them if you elect Donald Trump,” Wyden said.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who is also chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he will continue to back Biden.

“I support Joe Biden. He is our nominee,” Peters said. “I’m confident he will win and we’re going to be able to hold the Senate as well.”

New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman said Democrats need to unify “to protect this democracy” and brushed aside a question about whether Biden is being honest with himself about his health.

“I don’t believe that he’s ever done anything that suggests to me that he’s a liar, like his opponent,” Watson Coleman said.

‘Conversations are healthy’

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she has confidence in Biden to do the right thing, but didn’t say what exactly she believes that is.

“I think the conversations are healthy,” Shaheen said. “I expect him to do what’s in the best interest of the country.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said, “the most important thing right now is to beat Donald Trump. Talking to you all is not gonna necessarily help that.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for reelection in Wisconsin, would not answer reporters directly when asked if she supports Biden.

“I support the Democratic ticket,” she said.

Rep. Jared Huffman of California said the Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday, which will be private, will be “important” and that he wasn’t ready to comment further on Biden’s reelection bid.

“I support continuing this conversation and winning the election,” Huffman said.

Not answering questions

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse refused to answer repeated questions from reporters on Capitol Hill, saying he wanted to wait to hear what his colleagues say during the Tuesday closed-door lunch.

Several senators, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, quickly bypassed reporters or pointed them to written statements they’ve issued.

Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland declined to comment “because we’re still in the middle of the whole thing.”

“We’re all working for the best solution,” he said.

Senators with tough races

Vulnerable U.S. senators, who have so far been quiet, issued statements Monday addressing Biden’s ability to remain in the presidential campaign.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said in a written statement Biden “has got to prove to the American people—including me—that he’s up to the job for another four years,” according to media reports.

“Meanwhile, I’ll continue to do what I’ve always done: Stand up to President Biden when he’s wrong and protect our Montana way of life,” Tester said in his statement.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said on the campaign trail Monday that he’s heard concerns from voters regarding Biden moving forward in the race, according to an NBC News report.

“I’m not a pundit. I’ve talked to people across Ohio. They have legitimate questions about whether the president should continue his campaign, and I’ll keep listening to people,” Brown said.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the president pro tempore and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, issued a written statement highly critical of Biden remaining the nominee.

“I have a deep appreciation and strong respect for Joe, who has led a historic first term as President,” Murray wrote.

“Still, we need to see a much more forceful and energetic candidate on the campaign trail in the very near future in order for him to convince voters he is up to the job,” she said. “At this critical time for our country, President Biden must seriously consider the best way to preserve his incredible legacy and secure it for the future.”

Parkinson’s disease specialist

Administration officials defended Biden on Monday during a 75-minute, and at times tense, press briefing where reporters largely questioned Biden’s capacity to continue his reelection bid.

Jean-Pierre told reporters the president has cleared detailed neurological exams during each of his three annual physicals, the last one being in February.

The exams “have been detailed, they have been extensive,” she said, refusing to confirm names of medical specialists, for security reasons in a lengthy back-and-forth with reporters.

Journalists pressed Jean-Pierre about a Monday report in the New York Times that a Parkinson’s disease specialist from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center visited the White House eight times from July 2023 to March. Parkinson’s is a “progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Jean-Pierre said “thousands” of military personnel come to the White House.

“Has the president been treated for Parkinson’s? No. Is he being treated for Parkinson’s? No, he’s not. Is he taking medication for Parkinson’s? No. So those are the things I can give you full-blown answers on, but I’m not going to confirm a specialist, or any specialist, that comes to the White House,” Jean-Pierre said.

Jean-Pierre repeatedly stated that Biden receives regular “verbal check-ins” with his doctor, usually while he is exercising.

The White House released a two-page memo much later Monday that Dr. Kevin Cannard “was the neurological specialist that examined President Biden for each of his annual physicals.”

“His findings have been made public each time that I have released the results of the President’s annual physical,” wrote Dr. Kevin O’Connor, physician to the president. “President Biden has not seen a neurologist outside of his annual physical.”

Cannard has been the Neurology Consultant to the White House Medical Unit for 12 years and has held regular clinics for “active-duty members” at the White House, according to the letter.

The president is scheduled to spend most of the week with NATO leaders at the summit in Washington, D.C., and will give a solo press conference Thursday evening.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during the press briefing “we’re not picking up any signs of (concerns) from our allies at all.”

Kirby dismissed questions that Biden’s debate performance could be illustrative of his communications with his international counterparts.

“What I saw in that debate is not reflective of the man and the leader and the commander-in-chief that I have spent many, many hours with over the last two-and-a-half years, in terms of the specificity of the way he probes, the questions he asks,” Kirby said. “Heck, just this morning he was asking me questions about a situation on the European continent that I couldn’t answer, and I told him I’d have to get back to him.”

Biden pushes back with letter, calls in to ‘Morning Joe’

In a letter to congressional Democrats, Biden wrote Monday that he is “firmly committed to staying in this race, to running this race to the end, and to beating Donald Trump.”

He then called into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” for a live phone interview during which he criticized Democrats urging him to exit the race as “elites.”

“I’m getting so frustrated by the elites — now I’m not talking about you guys — the elites in the party, ‘Oh, they know so much more.’ Any of these guys that don’t think I should run, run against me. Announce for president, challenge me at the convention,” he said to hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

When asked by Brzezinski whether he can assure Americans that he won’t have another performance like the June 27 debate in Atlanta, Biden responded, “Look at my career, I’ve not had many of those nights.”

The live interview came one day after Biden held a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was joined by U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, Rep. Madeleine Dean and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis.

Biden began the weekend with a 22-minute interview Friday night with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos during which he attributed his debate performance to a “bad episode.”

The first sign of waning Democratic support appeared July 2 when Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas became the first sitting congressional Democrat to call on Biden to withdraw from the 2024 race.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and X.