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Biden’s Putin-Zelenskiy Gaffe Deals Fresh Blow to Campaign

Joe Biden, right, and Jens Stoltenberg (Graeme Sloan/Photographer: Graeme Sloan/Bloom)

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s news conference at the NATO summit amounts to a make-or-break moment in his quest to quiet a drumbeat of concerns at home and abroad about his 2024 presidential campaign. 

Biden was dealt fresh blows Thursday, as the New York Times reported that some of the president’s advisers have discussed ways to persuade him to step down as the nominee and that his campaign was polling voters on a hypothetical head-to-head matchup between Donald Trump and Vice President Kamala Harris.

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Later, at an event on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Biden drew gasps when he mistakenly identified Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Russian President Vladimir Putin while introducing him to the stage. While the US president subsequently corrected himself, saying Zelenskiy would “beat President Putin,” the gaffe was quickly highlighted by Republicans on social media and further underscored Biden’s propensity for verbal missteps.

Those developments will only intensify persistent doubts from party members about his ability to defeat Trump in November and serve another four years, despite a weeks-long effort to shore up support. Biden’s top political advisers met with senators on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon in a bid to calm lawmakers who have spent recent days all but pushing Biden to consider dropping out of the race. 

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said some of his concerns were allayed in the meeting, while others were deepened. He would not elaborate. Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran against Biden in the 2020 Democratic primary, expressed confidence in the president. “Joe Biden is going to win this election,” he said.

Separately, the number of House Democrats calling on Biden to withdraw rose to more than a dozen, including Ed Case of Hawaii and Greg Stanton from Arizona.

“For the sake of American democracy, and to continue to make progress on our shared priorities, I believe it is time for the president to step aside as our nominee,” Stanton said in a statement.

The Biden campaign released a cheery memo downplaying polls showing him trailing Trump, calling the contest “a margin-of-error race” in battleground states and saying there is “no indication” another Democrat would run better against the Republican. Ultimately, Biden will need to dramatically turn around perceptions when he steps before the assembled media at the conclusion of the NATO summit. 

A strong performance could help Biden, 81, reassure anxious Democrats and world leaders and curb infighting about his candidacy. Any stumble is virtually certain to intensify pressure on him to step aside. 

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said Biden aides were “unequivocally” not discussing the president stepping aside and that his “team is strongly behind him.” But the memo followed public calls from senior Democrats and former Biden aides for his team to explain how his candidacy remained viable.

“While there is no question there is increased anxiety following the debate, we are not seeing this translate into a drastic shift in vote share,” campaign chairwoman Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez wrote in a memo.

But the president’s support was quickly eroding among key Democrats. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday declined to offer Biden a full-throated endorsement, saying on MSNBC that “it’s up to the president to decide if he is going to run.”

Pelosi suggested the alliance’s summit in Washington would be a pivotal moment for Biden to demonstrate leadership on the world stage, urging colleagues to “hold off” voicing their opinions on the president “until we see how we go this week.”

Many Democrats ignored that advice. Peter Welch of Vermont became the first sitting Democratic senator to publicly endorse replacing Biden as the nominee. 

Actor George Clooney, who hosted a splashy Los Angeles fundraiser that raised $30 million for Biden, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the Democratic Party ought to have a new nominee because Biden is too old and cannot win the election, a sentiment he said every lawmaker he has spoken with shared privately. Other Hollywood icons who have hosted events to benefit Biden’s campaign — including actor Michael Douglas and director Rob Reiner — echoed those concerns. 

Earlier: Hollywood Turns on Biden as Clooney Presses for Change

Some 56% of Democrats want Biden to step aside, though the president remains tied at 46% with Trump among registered voters nationwide, according to a Washington Post/ABC News/Ipsos poll released on Thursday. Overall, 85% of adults surveyed said Biden is too old to serve another term.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is open to replacing Biden, Axios reported on Wednesday. The top Democrat told Bloomberg News after the report, “I’m for Joe.”

Biden’s staff has touted his Thursday appearance as a substantial press conference, suggesting it will include a fulsome, lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters. 

Anything less than that, including the type of tightly controlled media engagements that have been common during Biden’s presidency, is likely to discourage Democratic lawmakers who have urged the president to speak in an unscripted way and level with the American people about his fitness to serve. 

Biden this week continued his bid to close ranks among Democrats and cement support among key allies, calling into a meeting of Democratic mayors and speaking to the AFL-CIO labor coalition. “I think of you as my domestic NATO,” Biden told union officials on Wednesday. He agreed to participate in another prime-time television interview on Monday with NBC.

He also sought to put on a strong performance before NATO leaders, delivering a fiery speech on Tuesday hailing the alliance and surprising outgoing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honor. Pelosi called Biden’s remarks “spectacular.”

New UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer defended Biden’s abilities, telling the BBC the US president was “on good form” in their White House meeting Wednesday. Those sentiments echoed the assessment of Dutch Prime Minister Dick Schoof, who called Biden a “strong president.”

Leaders gathered at the NATO meeting in Washington closely scrutinized every one of Biden’s moves. Speculation around Biden’s fate reached such a fever pitch at the summit that a rumor circulated among some allied delegations that the president planned to use his Thursday press conference to announce he was dropping out of the race.

One senior European official said Biden came across as old, while another official who also attended last month’s Group of Seven summit said it seemed like the president’s condition was worsening then but that he appeared sharper at NATO.

Other diplomats praised Biden’s speech extolling the value of the trans-Atlantic alliance and standing with Ukraine. Some European leaders have voiced concern that Trump could withdraw the US from the world stage if he wins in November. One official said it was unfortunate much of the summit’s focus was on Biden’s appearance compared to the substance.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Luc Frieden said in an interview that Biden made “a very energetic impression” and disputed the notion that the president “was not capable of leading NATO as the main member.”

“I find it a little surprising that people judge a person about one performance on television,” Frieden said, referring to the debate.

An energetic summit appearance from Biden still appears unlikely to brighten the gloomy outlook in foreign capitals and the hallways of Congress.

“Neither the press conference tonight nor the NBC interview on Monday evening will offer the President the political salvation he seems to be seeking.” Representative Ritchie Torres of New York posted on X. “If the President formally becomes the Democratic Nominee, we will have no choice but to make the best of a complicated situation.”

--With assistance from Maeve Sheehey, Stephanie Lai, Courtney McBride, Natalia Drozdiak, Andrea Palasciano, Alberto Nardelli, Erik Wasson, Donato Paolo Mancini and Steven T. Dennis.

(Updates with Putin gaffe in the third paragraph)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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