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President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Sherman Middle School in Madison, WI.
Morry Gash/AP

Biden’s Highly Anticipated Interview Didn’t Calm Nerves. It Was Never Going To.

President Joe Biden is facing anxious Democrats, rapturous Republicans and a media watching his every verbal stumble. Democratic insiders told NOTUS there’s little he can do now to turn the page: “He’s already cooked.”

Morry Gash/AP

When the White House first announced Joe Biden’s interview with ABC News, Democrats were eager to give the president a shot at quelling Democratic unease and reuniting the party.

His performance likely won’t do that.

Even before the interview aired, after days of panic and growing calls for Biden to step aside, lawmakers and party insiders told NOTUS the interview wouldn’t be able to put a stop to the calls for Biden to withdraw from the race.

“I will not change my mind that it is best for our party and our country if he steps aside,” said Whitney Tilson, a Democratic donor and vocal advocate who has made the rounds on Fox News and CNN calling for Biden to drop out after the debate.

“He’s already cooked,” one senior Democratic aide said hours before the first clips of Biden’s appearance on ABC were revealed. “Even a good interview only delays the inevitable.”

As the first clips were released Friday night, particularly one in which Biden gave a rambling answer to whether he knew the debate was going poorly last Thursday, Democratic insiders predictably weren’t reassured.

“This is fucking brutal,” one progressive campaign strategist working on House races told NOTUS.

“He’s listening to two or three people who are gaslighting him,” another veteran Democratic strategist told NOTUS after the full interview aired. “And democracy is at stake.”

During his 22-minute interview Friday, the president was at times forceful and at times languid — enough of each to give his supporters and his critics plenty of ammo — but if there was one takeaway, it was that Biden doesn’t intend to go anywhere.

The president insisted he was confident party leaders wouldn’t ask him to leave the race and didn’t leave much room to be open to suggestions from anyone. “I mean if the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” he said. “The Lord Almighty’s not coming down.”

Asked how he’d feel if he stays in the race and former President Donald Trump wins the election, Biden said, “I’ll feel, as long as I gave it my all and I did the good a job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”

During the interview, the president chalked up his poor debate performance to being too tired and sick from a bad cold, an explanation that left at least one party insider unsatisfied.

“Your job is to not be exhausted for the debate. You know, right?” another senior Democratic aide said. “I mean, his performance was different than anything I’ve ever seen from him. And if he performed during the debate as he performed with George Stephanopoulos, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Biden’s ability to subdue a Democratic revolt is complicated by the growing feeling — informed by polling and his dismal debate performance last Thursday — that the president can no longer beat Trump.

Only minutes before the ABC interview aired, a fourth Democratic member of Congress publicly called on Biden to step aside. Rep. Mike Quigley said on MSNBC that “the only thing” Biden could do to “cement” his legacy “and prevent utter catastrophe is to step down and let someone else do this.”

But Biden was indignant Friday, telling reporters in Wisconsin that state governors and members of Congress had encouraged him to carry on with his campaign. He said the media had been “wrong about everything,” pointing generally to Democrats’ successes in 2020, 2022 and 2023. And he downplayed the Democratic opposition against him.

Asked about Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia posturing for Biden’s withdrawal from the race, the president falsely claimed, “He’s the only one.” During the interview, he suggested Warner may be motivated by his own desire for the presidency.

Biden in the interview also rejected public polls from NBC and The New York Times, claiming his internal numbers don’t show him losing as badly.

Tilson said a good night on ABC could have an impact for Biden but not one helpful for Democrats.

“A good interview might lead them to have him stick around for another couple of weeks,” Tilson said. “And we don’t have two weeks to spare with the convention coming up six weeks from Monday.”

Others are just waiting for the drama to play out. Before the interview started, another senior Democratic aide told NOTUS they didn’t believe Biden would ever actually drop out. “If I’m a betting man, I just don’t see it in the cards,” this aide said, adding they thought the president still had enough support among the party apparatus to control his fate.

Democrats reached by NOTUS Friday said they hoped Biden could unite the party and put the debate behind him once and for all. But as they have said for days now, the prevailing wish for the interview was that it didn’t have to happen at all.

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove couldn’t point to anything specific that would calm Democrats’ concerns, but she suggested the task wasn’t beyond the president’s abilities.

“At this point it’s about a feeling,” Kamlager-Dove told NOTUS earlier Friday. “People need to feel like he will deliver.”

A DNC member pointed to more specific goals, saying Biden needed to “continue to show he can do the job and be himself.”

“Folks in my circle are sticking with the president and will vote for him because the stakes are so high,” this DNC member said.

The Democratic Party is divided on the remedy to Biden’s problems. Some think it’s best for their electoral chances to force him out of the race. Others think Biden isn’t going anywhere and the talk playing up Biden’s aging issues only weakens him and other Democrats.

“Some of us are frustrated that others in the party are calling for him to exit the race. When Trump was on trial in NY, the Republicans didn’t call for him to step down. No, they showed up with red ties and supported him,” said Doug Wilson, former senior adviser for Biden’s 2020 campaign in North Carolina. “When Trump confused Nikki Haley, who is a 51-year-old Asian Indian American woman, with Nancy Pelosi, an 83-year-old Italian American woman, no one called for him to have a cognitive test.”

But the sense continued to be among most Democrats reached Friday that the hole for Biden is both deep and dug mostly by him and his campaign.

“There’s no precedent for a situation where 70-some percent of the public doesn’t think that he’s got the mental ability to do his job. I’ve never seen anything like that before. So it’s very difficult to say, ‘How do you tell people who weren’t sure that you got the mental acuity to do the job that you actually do?’ It’s very, very difficult to prove a negative,” said one Democrat who works on House and Senate races. “How do you prove that you’re not actually old and infirm?”

Friday was already setting up a bad Monday for the president. Elected Democrats and party officials were increasingly agitated about how little they’d heard from the White House.

“Many of us party leaders are getting bombarded by grassroots supporters and we don’t have any answers for them,” a Democratic National Committee member from North Carolina said.

New York Times reporter Teddy Schleifer circulated a memo purportedly from operatives making the argument for Vice President Kamala Harris to take over the ticket.

Harris was on one Democrat’s mind after Biden’s interview on ABC. Asked if Biden’s performance did anything to settle concerns, one of the Senior Democratic aides NOTUS spoke with said: “It’s making me feel better about Kamala.”

“He should pass the torch to her at his press conference on Thursday, and then we can all be done with this by this time next week.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Ben T.N. Mause, Calen Razor, and Tinashe Chingarande, are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. NOTUS reporters Oriana González, Reese Gorman and Riley Rogerson contributed reporting.