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Biden’s political position is rapidly deteriorating as critical news conference looms

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

CNN  —  A staggering 24 hours that cracked the political foundation of Joe Biden’s reelection bid leave him facing the most high-pressure presidential news conference in modern history on Thursday.

The stakes for Biden’s solo appearance at the conclusion of the NATO summit multiplied by the hour as his political position unraveled at a dignity-sapping rate. Supporters from Congress to Hollywood warned that he needed to step aside for the sake of party and country, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a clear signal that a recalcitrant president should rethink his options.

The rebellion, joined by just a small minority of congressional Democrats but appearing to run deeper, reflects the fear now surging through Capitol Hill that ex-President Donald Trump could conjure a GOP landslide that sweeps conservatives to a monopoly on power in Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court.

Some Democrats fear that the 81-year-old Biden’s determination to run again, despite the diminished skills exposed by the debate, could endanger the very democracy that he says he’s trying to save.

The president — who was in poor political shape even before the disastrous debate — is adamant that he won’t pass the torch to a younger Democrat. But three factors could make his position untenable: a fracturing of support in his party; the drying up of fundraising; and damning polling data. As Biden greeted world leaders at the NATO summit on Wednesday and led discussions about how to save Ukraine, pieces were falling into place that could make this fateful trifecta a reality.

Nothing less than Biden’s hopes of a second term will be on the line at the news conference exactly two weeks after his incoherent and dazed debate performance sent his campaign into free fall. It’s the latest in a series of public events that have turned into excruciating examinations of Biden’s health and cognitive capacity, during which any slip up or confusion could trigger political disaster. Any sign his reasoning or performance are fogged by age would reinforce an impression of presidential infirmity seared into the national consciousness at the CNN debate and could inflame a stunning Democratic revolt.

The ground is shifting under the president

The day began with Pelosi, still a key party power broker, contradicting Biden’s insistence that the matters of his abject debate performance and his nomination were closed. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” she said that it was up to Biden to “decide if he is going to run” — comments that everyone in Washington interpreted as a request for Biden to change his mind. The California Democrat appeared to be offering the president another chance to gracefully change his mind after he warned earlier this week, “I’m not going anywhere.”

All day, lawmakers sent similar signals. Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres — a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has backed Biden — told CNN, “If we are going on a political suicide mission, then we should at least be honest about it.” His fellow New Yorker, moderate Rep. Pat Ryan, called on Biden to live up to his vow to be a bridge to a new generation of leaders. “Trump is an existential threat to American democracy; it is our duty to put forward the strongest candidate against him. Joe Biden is a patriot but is no longer the best candidate to defeat Trump.”

And Wednesday evening, Vermont Sen. Peter Welch became the first Democratic senator to publicly call on Biden to withdraw. “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 op-ed.

Top Biden campaign officials are set to huddle with Democratic senators Thursday to make the president’s case, but a staffers’ briefing will fall well short of the steps that members are demanding to show that Biden has the strength to beat Trump.

As recently as Tuesday evening, it seemed that Biden had succeeded in stalling momentum against him. But within 24 hours, he was fast losing ground and it’s becoming hard to imagine how the party can unite behind him at the Democratic National Convention in August if many lawmakers will leave Chicago and head into an election in which they believe their presidential nominee will seal their defeat.

The concerns from lawmakers are so significant because they are listening to voters, reading polling data in their states and concluding Biden not only can’t win but — as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said on CNN Tuesday — could hand Trump a landslide he could use to implement his authoritarian agenda.

Top Democratic leaders in Congress have yet to say Biden should leave. And the president still has his defenders. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Biden ally and campaign co-chair, told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins Wednesday: “He’s going to be our nominee at the convention. He is going to be our candidate in the fall. He is going to be the next president of the United States.” Sen. John Fetterman, who represents the key swing state of Pennsylvania, told CNN’s Erin Burnett that it would be a “disgrace to discard and push out an amazing president” and said he’d show up to Thursday’s Senate Democratic meeting with brass knuckles to defend Biden.

But the rising frustration and indications that the president’s cratering support could end the party’s hopes in November help explain why Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told his members he’d pass on their concerns to Biden.

Biden isn’t the ‘big F-ing deal’ of 2010

The most personally stinging defection from Biden came from actor and Democratic mega donor George Clooney, who appeared at a fundraiser with the president only last month. The “Good Night, and Good Luck” director and star said he loved Biden, and believed in his morals, character and presidency. But he wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “the Joe Biden I was with three weeks ago at the fund-raiser was not the Joe ‘big F-ing deal’ Biden of 2010.” Clooney went on: “He wasn’t even the Joe Biden of 2020. He was the same man we all witnessed at the debate. … We are not going to win in November with this president.”

Clooney’s piece underscored how Biden’s plight is not just a boiling political controversy but has become a heart-rending human ordeal for the president, who is loved by many Democrats but whose health and diminished capacities are now becoming fodder for humiliating debate in the most public fashion imaginable.

Clooney maintains deep contacts with Democratic office holders and donors, so his views carry more weight than those of just any celebrity. And he’s not the only disgruntled donor. In another danger sign for Biden’s candidacy, one Democratic strategist told CNN, “Everything is frozen because no one knows what’s going to happen. Everyone is in wait and see mode,” adding that money was on the sidelines and awaiting the outcome of Biden’s Thursday news conference and interviews. The president will sit down with NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt for an interview that will tape and air next Monday, the network announced.

There’s been slippage for Biden since the debate in public polling. And Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is locked in a tight Senate race in Michigan, told donors on a video call Tuesday that Biden was trailing Trump in private polling in her state, the New York Times reported. If the president cannot carry Michigan, as he did in 2020, his path to the 270 Electoral Votes needed to win the White House becomes negligible.

The deepening crisis gripping the Democratic Party is not simply damaging Biden’s chances of clinging to the nomination. It is also offering Trump and Republicans a bottomless source of attack ads against Biden if he’s confirmed as the nominee. Individual candidates can also expect to be skewered over why they are supporting a party figurehead who many Democrats have declared is unfit to serve a second term that would end when he is 86. And two weeks of agonizing over Biden’s age and mental faculties, combined with a clumsy mitigation effort by the White House and the campaign, have taken the heat off Trump and deprived Democrats of the comparison with the ex-president’s lawlessness and volatility that many had originally believed would help Biden hold the White House.

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, warned that Democrats needed to end their feuding and get behind the president before it was too late. She told CNN’s Erin Burnett that it was “astonishing” that her party should be on a “suicide mission” so close to the election.

But as Biden’s political standing continues to rapidly deteriorate, the question is becoming how much longer he can insist he’s the only Democrat who can beat Trump.

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