US election: After TV debate: US Democrats are worried

The US president was supposed to shake off doubts about his age in the TV debate against Trump. The opposite is happening.

Joe Biden is fighting. With words, with numbers, with his voice. The US President stands next to Donald Trump on the television stage in Atlanta, croaking, trying to come up with an answer about taxes, national debt and the economic situation. In one sentence he confuses trillionaires and billionaires, in the next millions and billions. In between he winks nervously. Then he starts a sentence that just won’t end.

“We would be able to make sure that all the things that we need to do – child care, elderly care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system,” says the 81-year-old, “making sure that we are able to provide every single person…” Biden has lost the thread. He closes his eyes and starts again. “Be entitled to… for what I have to do with the…, the Covid…” Again he closes his eyes and clears his throat. “Excuse me, um.” The most powerful man in the world looks down at his lectern. “Dealing with… everything we have to deal with…” The Democrat continues to look down at the lectern. Trump turns to him, looking questioningly.

The pause, painful even to watch, continues. Then Biden looks up, adds something incomprehensible about the health care system, before CNN anchor Jake Tapper cuts him off and says, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Biden’s time is up.

Erratic, confused, overwhelmed

It is just one of many moments in the first TV debate between the two US presidential candidates in this election campaign in which Biden appears erratic, confused, simply not up to the task of the debate. The fact that a convicted criminal is standing next to him on the stage, a scandal-ridden politician who tried to sabotage the outcome of a democratic election and shamelessly spread lies in this debate too, fades into the background.

Biden appears aggressive, repeatedly attacks his opponent unusually harshly, denigrating him as a “loser”, “whiner”, and once even as someone with the “morals of a street dog”. But this does not seem powerful. In a hoarse and sometimes quiet voice, he struggles through various answers that are often incoherent. In between there are moments when he stares into space with his mouth open.

The reactions to the Democratic leader’s appearance were devastating, including and especially within his own party. Biden’s age and the debate about his condition are his biggest problems in the election campaign anyway. In this first encounter with Trump in four years, he should have proven himself, shown the people of the country that despite his 81 years, he is perfectly capable of leading the country and beating Trump. But that is exactly what he is not doing.

Sheer panic in the party

Even Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, admitted on camera after the debate: “It was a rocky start, that’s obvious to everyone.” Even political commentators who are usually sympathetic to Biden are horrified by the president’s performance, speaking of a humiliation and an election disaster. “There will be discussions about whether he will continue,” says David Axelrod, chief strategist for Biden’s former boss, former President Barack Obama.

And it is precisely this unimaginable question that the Democrats are now discussing: whether their front man is so weak that they have to find an alternative candidate around four months before election day. Most of them are only speaking out behind closed doors. “It’s hard to argue that Biden should be our candidate,” CNN quoted an unnamed party official as saying. Others speak of sheer “panic” in the party. But from the back rows there are already the first public appeals for Biden to withdraw, for example from Andrew Yang, who unsuccessfully ran as his party’s presidential candidate in 2020. “Folks, the Democrats should nominate someone else – before it’s too late,” Yang writes on the X platform.

A Plan B for the Democrats?

But would it even be possible to take Biden out of the race? Theoretically, yes. At the end of August, the Democrats will meet for a coronation convention in Chicago. Actually, to officially nominate Biden as their presidential candidate. But there, the party could still change course at short notice and choose a new candidate. Biden would have to drop out of his own free will, however, because he has formally won his party’s primaries, and the delegates at the convention are bound by the results for the time being. But Biden could cite health or family reasons, for example, to withdraw in order to save face. It is questionable whether he would be willing to do this.

And the even bigger problem: the party has no real plan B. It has failed to build a successor. Biden must take the blame for this above all. The grandfather of seven claims that he is the best qualified person for the job and that only he can beat Trump. This now seems almost presumptuous.

Harris would have been the natural successor. But she has remained indifferent in her role as Vice President, is barely visible and is struggling with poor popularity ratings herself. Since she is the first woman and the first black person to hold the office, it would have been difficult to establish a replacement candidate. And now it is too late.

Even if the option of a Biden exit were theoretically conceivable, it would probably be politically hopeless. Establishing another Democrat on the national stage as an alternative for the presidency within four months, who is as well known as Trump, seems hardly possible. Trump’s chances of moving back into the White House have never been greater.