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Politics chat: Biden deals with fallout from debate

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Even if you didn't catch the CNN presidential debate on Thursday night, you've probably been hearing about it. President Biden and former President Donald Trump exchanged barbs and blame on everything from immigration to who has the better golf swing.

But what everyone is talking about is President Biden's performance. That includes the president himself. At a rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday. He admitted that he's not a young man and that he can't debate as well as he used to. He defended his ability to hold office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And I know how to do this job.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: I know how to get things done.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: And I know, like millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down, you get back up.

(CHEERING)

RASCOE: And now we're going to talk about it, too. We're joined by NPR senior White House correspondent, Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: OK, so President Biden asked for this debate. Was that a mistake given how things went?

KEITH: You know, the campaign had been looking for something to shake up the race and remind voters who Donald Trump is, and that is why they wanted the debate so early - because Biden was not winning in the polls. But Biden totally whiffed the opportunity to prove to voters who already thought he was too old that they had been underestimating him. On the other hand, they say a whole lot of people spent a whole lot of time paying attention to Trump in that debate, much more time than they have since he left office.

The campaign's view is that this debate hasn't dramatically shifted the race, which isn't the outcome they had been hoping for, but the stakes remain the same, they say. And the fact that the debate was so early means there is more time for Biden to bounce back from that very bad debate performance. He began doing that on Friday with that high-energy rally, and then there have been a series of high-dollar fundraisers this weekend.

RASCOE: So a Morning Consult poll released on Friday showed that 47% of Democratic voters and 59% of independent voters said Biden should be replaced as the party's presidential candidate, with some saying Vice President Kamala Harris should replace him. Where does that leave his campaign?

KEITH: Well, let me take you back to 2023, long before this very bad debate for Biden. In September of last year, CNN came out with a poll finding that two-thirds of Democratic-leaning voters said the party should not nominate President Biden for a second term. So that is to say that unease with Biden's advanced age has been a running theme essentially since he took office.

Outside of one of Biden's fundraisers yesterday, there were protesters holding up some absolutely brutal signs that included, please drop out, and we love you, but it's time. And we have no idea whether those were professional provocateurs or truly concerned Democrats.

But a campaign official told me absolutely not when I asked whether Biden was considering stepping aside. And in an email to supporters offering talking points for conversations with freaked out friends, a top aide to the campaign outlined, among other things, just how risky swapping out nominees would be at this point, saying such chaos could only help Trump.

The campaign told me they raised $27 million on debate day and in the day after, including some of their single best grassroots fundraising hours since Biden announced he was running. Of course, Trump raised more than double that immediately after his felony conviction last month.

RASCOE: Does it feel like this issue of performance has, in some way, overshadowed the substance of the debate, like the important topics both Biden and Trump were asked about?

KEITH: Oh, absolutely. And on everything from abortion to affordable child care to the deficit, Biden's answers were muddled, and Trump was mostly just trying to talk about what he came there to hit on, which was immigration and crime and how much better he says things were when he was president. A lot of work for fact-checkers - and in a lot of ways, Trump is lucky that there's been so much focus on Biden because a lot of what the former president said in that debate could be really off-putting to independent voters, you know, like, bragging about the size of his crowd on January 6, dismissing the violence and vandalism that day from people literally carrying his flag. He had to be asked three times whether he would accept the results of the 2024 election. And finally, he hedged saying, only if it's fair and legal and a good election, whatever that means.

RASCOE: That's NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks for speaking with us.

KEITH: You're welcome, Ayesha. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.