Joe Biden Doesn’t Understand the Post-Debate Reality

The president told George Stephanopoulos that he’d drop out only if “the Lord Almighty” directed him to do so.

George Stephanopoulos interviews President Joe Biden

No interview could reverse the damage that Joe Biden did to his campaign in the first presidential debate, but his conversation with George Stephanopoulos tonight showed that the president doesn’t even understand how profound the damage is.

The 20-minute interview, which aired this evening on ABC, featured a combative Biden, more like the president who gave a widely praised State of the Union address in March than the one who crumbled on a debate stage last week. Biden clearly believes that he can and will win the race against Donald Trump, but he seems stuck on June 26, unable to recognize the doubts that his party and voters have about him after the first presidential debate.

One of the interview’s most striking moments came when Stephanopoulos pressed Biden on whether he would submit to an independent neurological assessment. He refused. “Look, I have a cognitive test every single day,” Biden said, pointing to the duties of the presidency. If that’s true, he failed the test on June 27, and no interview, no matter how strong, can erase it.

The president didn’t dispute his poor performance in the debate. “It was a bad episode. No indication of any serious condition,” Biden said, blaming his own preparation, a bad cold, exhaustion, Trump shouting at him despite his microphone being off, and Trump’s many lies.

All of that may be true—though were the lies really a surprise?—but Biden simply isn’t reckoning with just how damaging the performance was. Biden didn’t merely have a “bad night,” as he said at one point, the way former President Barack Obama did during his first debate against Mitt Romney. No one who watched that encounter back in 2012 thought Obama was not up to the job. By contrast, a string of Democratic officials and donors have begun calling for Biden to drop out. Today, Governor Maura Healey of Massachusetts said he should step aside, and The Washington Post reported that Senator Mark Warner of Virginia is organizing a group of senators to pressure Biden.

Biden insisted to Stephanopoulos that he has the energy to be president. “Can I run the 100 in 10 flat? No. But I’m still in good shape,” he said, and denied that he was frailer than four years ago: “No. Come keep my schedule.” Rather than his stunned, vacant stare at the debate, he met the most challenging questions with a classic gleaming Biden grin.

The trouble is that Biden’s go-to answer for concerns about whether he can handle another four years is to cite his accomplishments during the past four, including turning around the economy, marshaling support for Ukraine, and expanding the U.S. microchip industry. His administration has been extremely productive, and—as he emphasized—exceeded many expectations. Biden no doubt feels it is unfair to not be recognized for these achievements, but his record has nothing to do with whether voters believe he can go on.

Whatever steps Biden has lost, he remains as stubborn as ever, and he demonstrated it throughout the interview. He denied that he is losing to Trump. (“Do you think polling data’s as accurate as it used to be?”) He wrote off signs of Democratic discontent as a creation of the press. And he said he’d drop out if “the Lord Almighty” came down and directed him, but refused to say what he would do if top Democratic allies told him it was time to go: “I’m not going to answer that question. It’s not gonna happen.” That prediction will be tested soon enough.

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