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Behind the Curtain: Biden oligarchy will decide fate

S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden wave as they exit the stage during a campaign rally in Raleigh

President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden leave a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday. Photo: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Forget the pundits. Ignore New York Times editorials and columnists. Tune out people popping off on X.

  • The only way President Biden steps aside, despite his debate debacle, is if the same small group of lifelong loyalists who enabled his run suddenly — and shockingly — decides it’s time for him to call it quits.

Why it matters: Dr. Jill Biden; his younger sister, Valerie Biden; and 85-year-old Ted Kaufman, the president’s longtime friend and constant adviser — plus a small band of White House advisers — are the only Biden deciders.

This decades-long kitchen cabinet operates as an extended family, council of elders and governing oligarchy. These allies alone hold sway over decisions big and small in Biden’s life and presidency.

  • The president engaged in no organized process outside his family in deciding to run for a second term, the N.Y. Times’ Peter Baker reports.
  • Then Biden alone made the decision, people close to him tell us.

Behind the scenes: If Biden stays in, it’s for the same reason he decided to run again: He and the oligarchy believe he has a much better chance of beating former President Trump than Vice President Harris does.

  • Biden allies have played out the scenarios and see little chance of anyone besides Harris winning the nomination if he stepped aside.
  • Is the Democratic Party going to deny the nomination to the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected V.P.? Hard to see.
  • These allies privately think Harris would struggle to pull moderate and swing voters, and would enhance Trump’s chances. (Harris “fares only one or two points worse than Biden in polls with margins of sampling error that are much larger than that,” The Washington Post found.)

The intrigue: We’re told Democratic congressional leaders are one outside force that could bring pressure on Biden.

  • They’re getting calls and texts from panicked lawmakers who fear Biden’s weakness could cost the party House and Senate seats in November.

“This is no longer about Joe Biden’s family or his emotions,” said an adviser in constant touch with the West Wing. “This is about our country. It’s an utter f***ing disaster that has to be addressed.”

  • It’ll take a while for the oligarchy to process the stakes, this adviser argued, “but there will be a reckoning.”

Behind the scenes: Biden insiders are already finding it easier than many realized to rationalize staying in. They argue: Yes, he had a poor debate performance. But Biden also can dial up vigorous appearances like he did in Raleigh on Friday afternoon.

  • That behind-the-scenes juxtaposition plays out daily: Sometimes he’s on his game, sharper than people would think, and quicker on his feet.
  • But often it’s the Biden you saw on the debate stage: tired, slow, halting.

Top Democrats saw what America saw live, on national TV, vividly and unforgettably. They can’t unsee it. And they fear voters won’t unsee it.

  • No longer can they blame critics or edited footage or media exaggeration.
  • Every misstep, verbal hiccup or frozen face will zip across social media and TV, reminding voters Biden will be 86 years old at the end of his second term.

“They need to tell him the absolute truth about where he is,” said a well-known Democrat who often talks to the president. “Loyalty doesn’t mean blind loyalty.”

  • “Candidates for House, Senate, governor, state legislature are going to be in survival mode,” the well-known Democrat added. “They’re not going to go down with the ship. And the ship is in a bad place.”

What we’re hearing: Some Biden family members are digging in — squinting at overnight polls for signs that undecided voters moved Biden’s way because of Trump statements at the debate.

  • “They know it was a disaster,” said a source close to the family. “But they think there’s a glimmer of survival/hope.”
  • In a Biden campaign memo, “Independent Voters Move to Biden in Debate,” officials wrote: “Based on research we conducted during [the] debate, it is clear that the more voters heard from Donald Trump, the more they remembered why they dislike him.”

Biden — bolstered by a tweet from former President Obama (“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know”) — sounds like he wants to stick it out.

  • “When you get knocked down, you get back up,” Biden said to applause, reading from a teleprompter during a rally Friday at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.
  • “Folks, I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But … I know how to tell the truth.”

What we’re watching: The public backing of former presidents and current members of Congress says little about Biden’s future.

  • Most know him too well and for too long to humiliate him in public.
  • Instead, if he decides to go, it’ll follow private conversations with them — then a decision with this oligarchy. Remember, it’s under eight weeks until Biden is ratified as the official nominee. That’s the clock to watch.

What they’re saying: James Carville — the “Ragin’ Cajun” who masterminded Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, and now is a frequent TV pundit — will be 80 in October. He told us that if he appeared like Biden did during the debate, he’d want to be pulled off the tube.

  • “I never thought this was a nifty idea,” Carville said of Biden’s run. He said there are few people the president really listens to: “He doesn’t have advisers. He has employees.”

When we pressed Carville on whether he thinks Biden will be off the ticket by Election Day, he said he thinks so. He invoked a famous quote by the late economist Herb Stein, which Carville paraphrased as: “That which can’t continue … won’t.”

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