Stubborn Biden dismisses calls to quit in key TV interview

Published July 6, 2024
US President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One in Madison, Wisconsin on July 5. — AFP
US President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One in Madison, Wisconsin on July 5. — AFP

US President Joe Biden fended off questions about his mental fitness and electability in a TV interview on Friday meant to draw a line under a disastrous debate performance that triggered calls for him to quit his re-election bid.

With rebellion brewing among some nervous Democratic voters, lawmakers and donors, the one-to-one with the ABC network was hyped as the most consequential of the 81-year-old president’s long career.

But the 22-minute sit-down appeared to provide little reassurance, as Biden blamed sickness for his sub-par performance and repeatedly dismissed polling and fears within his party that the debate had gravely wounded his prospects.

“I was sick, I was feeling terrible […] I just had a really bad cold,” said the president, in his first unscripted remarks of any length since last week’s showdown with Republican rival Donald Trump.

The interview was intended to help Biden weather the storm, but his hoarse voice and meandering answers drew immediate Democratic fire for appearing “out of touch.”

Asked if staying in the race might jeopardize Democrats holding on to the White House, Biden said: “I don’t think anybody’s more qualified to be president or win this race than me.”

He dodged calls to have doctors assess his mental acuity, saying that the duties of the presidency mean “I have a cognitive test every single day. Every day I have that test, everything I do.”

The Trump campaign mockingly posted on social media that “Biden sounds great” as the broadcast went out, before concluding the president “is in denial and in decline.”

The interview came after Biden was hesitant and often incoherent during the debate against Trump in Atlanta, leading to panic within his party and calls for him to pull out of the race.

‘I’ll beat Trump’

The Biden campaign has pushed back hard on any suggestion he may withdraw and, just hours before the ABC interview, released an aggressive campaign travel schedule for the rest of July.

Appearing at a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, the president delivered an energetic stump speech, unequivocally declaring, “I’m staying in the race. I’ll beat Donald Trump.”

Post-debate polls have shown a widening deficit in Trump’s favour and at least four Democrats in Congress have called on Biden to step aside, as have major newspapers, donors and a raft of Democratic-supporting political commentators.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Mark Warner and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries were both planning crisis talks with lawmakers in the coming days, US media reported.

In Friday’s interview, ABC host George Stephanopoulos repeatedly referenced the growing Democratic clamour for a conversation on picking a new candidate, asking Biden if he would step down if convinced he couldn’t beat Trump. “Well, it depends. If the Lord Almighty comes down and tells me that, I might do that,” he said.

Biden added that he had not watched the debate afterwards, saying “I don’t think I did, no.” And he dismissed the idea that his poor performance was a sign of a more serious health problem.

“It was a bad episode, no indication of any serious condition. I was exhausted. I didn’t listen to my instincts in terms of preparing and — and I had a bad night,” Biden said.

David Axelrod, a top aide in Barack Obama’s White House and an occasional thorn in the side of the Biden administration, said the interview showed a president “dangerously out of touch” with concerns over his fitness for office.

“Four years ago at this time, he was 10 points ahead of Trump [in polls]. Today, he is six points behind,” Axelrod posted on X.

The White House has announced Biden will visit Pennsylvania this weekend before holding a press conference during the NATO summit in Washington next week.

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