The president and his team have waved away Democrats’ worries about his bid for another term. But this week, he has drawn new attention to the question of what is best for the party.
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President Biden told reporters on Wednesday that “probably 50” Democrats could beat former President Donald J. Trump. He then seemed to laugh off the remark and added, “I’m not the only one who could defeat him, but I will defeat him.”
President Biden has a way of explaining away his gaffes that can let him defuse the situation without causing himself long-term political damage.
“No one ever doubts I mean what I say,” he often says. The problem, he admits, is that “sometimes I say all that I mean.”
So it went this week when Mr. Biden told donors on Tuesday night near Boston that “I’m not sure I’d be running” if former President Donald J. Trump were not trying to reclaim the Oval Office.
It was a forehead-slapping moment for a president whose drooping approval ratings have forced him to turn his re-election campaign into a referendum on his predecessor, and a reminder that the political forecast for the next 11 months suggests America will be inundated with two candidates most of the country doesn’t want.
Within hours, Mr. Biden walked back the sentiment. After returning to the White House, he approached reporters and said he wouldn’t drop out of the race even if Mr. Trump did so.
Then came Wednesday.
After delivering a speech urging Congress to pass a multibillion-dollar aid package for Ukraine, Mr. Biden walked away and reporters shouted questions at him.
One grabbed his attention: Could any other Democrat defeat Mr. Trump?
The president could have left and closed the door. The chatter about his 2024 decision would have been put to bed, at least for this week. But he could not resist. Once again, he reminded America why Democratic allies, and not Mr. Biden himself, are often viewed as his best messengers.
“Probably 50” Democrats could beat Mr. Trump, he said. Then, seeming to laugh off his remark with a wry smile, he added, “I’m not the only one who could defeat him, but I will defeat him.”
Whether Mr. Biden was joking, or again accidentally saying all that he meant, is for him to know. But his perhaps-too-candid moments, combined with many voters’ dissatisfaction about his performance, have worked to undercut his rationale for running — that he is the indispensable Democrat best positioned to keep Mr. Trump out of the White House, protect democracy and retain the “soul of America.”
If he’s not indispensable, it opens the door to an uncomfortable question from skeptics in his party: Why not let some other Democrat have a chance to run for president?
The reasons Mr. Biden is running again are fairly obvious. He considered a presidential bid in 1984, mounted his first White House campaign four years later, served for eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, wanted to run in 2016 and finally won the nation’s top office in 2020.
People who think about running for president for 36 years tend not to give up the White House without a fight. No president since Rutherford B. Hayes has served the four full years of his first term and then declined to run again.
Mr. Biden had left some Democratic voters under the impression that he might gracefully step aside: During his 2020 campaign, he stood on a Detroit stage with three next-generation Democrats — Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan — and said, “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else.”
But his own ambition and the enormous political advantage of incumbency always suggested he would seek to remain president into his mid-80s.
Former Senator Barbara Boxer of California, a devoted Biden supporter who has known him since the early 1980s, said voters she heard from in Southern California were far more interested in stopping Mr. Trump from returning to power than they were worried about Mr. Biden’s age or competence.
“They say, ‘We’ve got to win this,’” Ms. Boxer said. “They don’t talk so much about Joe. They say our democracy is on the line. They just assume it will be Joe.”
Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s first chief of staff, allowed in an interview on Thursday that “it is possible that there are other Democrats in America who could beat Trump.” But because Mr. Biden is the only one to have actually done it, Mr. Klain said, he has the best chance to do so again. Mr. Klain said he did not know who the 50 Democrats mentioned by Mr. Biden were.
“This is a life-or-death moment for democracy, and we need someone who has beaten Trump before,” Mr. Klain said.
Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesman, dismissed any close reading of Mr. Biden’s latest comments. The campaign, Mr. Munoz said, would not be “distracted by the same Beltway narratives that President Biden has proven wrong for years.”
And Mr. Biden’s latest verbal adventures didn’t exactly prompt a reckoning in Democratic politics. Most simply rolled their eyes at his struggle to keep the political conversation on favorable terrain — especially during a week in which Mr. Trump pledged not to be a dictator “except for Day 1.”
“He’s one of the most honest people you’re ever going to meet in terms of expressing what he is feeling at the moment,” former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota said of Mr. Biden, with whom he served for 18 years in the Senate. “There isn’t a politician alive that hasn’t wanted to reframe things. We all do it.”
Mr. Trump, at age 77, has not exactly been a smooth operator himself. He has long strayed off message, and has his own growing record of verbal slips. He has confused Mr. Biden with Mr. Obama, suggested America is on the verge of entering World War II, praised Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, and told supporters not to worry about voting.
David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist who helped choose Mr. Biden to be Mr. Obama’s running mate in 2008, said it was understood at the time that Mr. Biden’s occasional deviation from the prescribed political script was part of the package.
He said Mr. Biden’s gaffes gave him an authenticity in the minds of voters that other veteran Washington politicians lacked, even if they caused a few headaches for Mr. Obama and his aides.
“Joe Biden has been a guy who has spoken his mind for 50 years in politics,” said Mr. Axelrod, who has repeatedly suggested that the president’s age will be a top concern for voters in 2024. “Sometimes that’s gotten him into some hot water, but it’s also part of a whole package of a guy who is authentic and willing to say exactly what he’s thinking.”
Reid J. Epstein covers campaigns and elections from Washington. Before joining The Times in 2019, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Newsday and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. More about Reid J. Epstein
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