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Biden faces fresh calls to withdraw as Democrats fear electoral rout

President Joe Biden, center, awards the Medal of Freedom to former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on May 3 in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
By Annie Karni New York Times

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden faced a fresh wave of pressure on Wednesday to end his campaign or rethink his decision to run for re-election, as Democrats from Hollywood to Capitol Hill aired grave concerns that he would lose to former President Donald Trump in November and drag his party’s chance of controlling Congress down with him.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the former House speaker and a longtime Biden ally, gave the strongest public signal yet that Democrats were still divided on Biden’s candidacy, saying that “time is running short” for him to make a decision.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Pelosi, 84, said that she would back Biden, “whatever he decides.”

Biden, 81, has said his mind is made up about continuing his campaign and called on Democrats to come together behind him. But lawmakers are still agonizing over his decision and hoping to at least keep alive a conversation about an alternative path, as many feared the president would lead their party to an electoral rout from which it could take years to recover.

Biden’s strategy to save his candidacy appears to be aimed at running out the clock. And every day he defies pressure to step aside makes the logistics of replacing him more difficult. On Wednesday, he appeared to have survived another day, as Capitol Hill remained mired in a state of uncertainty and division during what lawmakers had deemed to be a critical week for Biden’s campaign.

Intense focus was turning to Biden’s performance at a NATO news conference Thursday, which Democrats said would be a critical – and perhaps final – test of the president’s ability to stay in the race.

The dam of support for Biden did not appear to be breaking, yet, but a trickle of dissent continued to seep out. Hours after Pelosi’s comments, Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, called on Biden to drop out “for the good of the country,” becoming the eighth House Democrat to do so publicly.

Some senators appeared to adopt Pelosi’s stance that there was still a decision that the president needed to make, even though he has been clear that his mind is made up. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., appealed to Biden’s sense of decency in making a difficult choice, arguing that Biden would ultimately “do the patriotic thing for the country.”

Others were not waiting for him to do so. George Clooney, an actor and prominent Democratic donor who just last month hosted a $28 million fundraiser in Hollywood for Biden, made a powerful plea to the president to end his candidacy, saying he had witnessed Biden’s decline up close in recent weeks.

“It’s devastating to say it, but the Joe Biden I was with three weeks ago at the fundraiser was not the Joe ‘big F-ing deal’ Biden of 2010,” Clooney said in a guest essay in the New York Times. “He wasn’t even the Joe Biden of 2020. He was the same man we all witnessed at the debate.”

Clooney said that every “senator and Congress member and governor who I’ve spoken with in private” agreed with him that Democrats would lose in November with Biden as their presidential candidate. “Most of our members of Congress are opting to wait and see if the dam breaks,” he said. “But the dam has broken.”

As if to underscore the concerns, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster, has moved Electoral College projections in six states in Trump’s direction. Arizona, Georgia and Nevada went from “tossup” to “lean Republican.” Minnesota, New Hampshire and the 2nd Congressional District in Nebraska went from “likely Democrat” to “lean Democrat.”

And Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who is running for an open Senate seat, told donors privately at a fundraiser on Tuesday that her private polling showed Trump defeating Biden in her state. In New York, Antonio Delgado, a former House member who serves as lieutenant governor, called on Biden to step aside, even though the state’s governor, Kathy Hochul, has positioned herself as one of Biden’s biggest cheerleaders.

Almost two weeks after the disastrous debate performance that surfaced serious doubts about the president’s mental acuity and fitness to run, Biden has not yet participated in the kinds of high-profile, unscripted events that lawmakers said they wanted to see to help ease their concerns.

Biden was set to participate in a planned NATO news conference Thursday and an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt the following Monday.

Senior White House advisers Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon, as well as the chair of Biden’s campaign, Jen O’Malley Dillon, were also set to brief Democratic senators at a special caucus luncheon on Thursday. There, they were set to face frustrated Democrats who have complained privately and publicly that the White House has not done enough to reassure them, as well as voters, that Biden has a path to victory.

Their presence on Capitol Hill may only raise more questions about why Biden, who served for more than three decades in the Senate, has not appeared in person to address and rally his former colleagues in what was once his comfort zone. On Wednesday, Biden spent the day in meetings with union leaders and foreign dignitaries in Washington for a NATO summit, including Keir Starmer, the newly elected British prime minister, while lawmakers were left to wonder aloud about whether the president could run and win.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters, “I am deeply concerned about Joe Biden winning this November.” He said the party had to “reach a conclusion as soon as possible” about his candidacy but reiterated that he supported Biden as the party’s nominee.

Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said that his hope was that “the concerns that are being expressed are being heard, even if not yet acknowledged.”

He added: “I want him to look at the evidence and make a hard decision. He’s earned that.”

But a group of Black Democrats and progressives continued to profess their complete commitment to Biden and declared the conversation about any change at the top of the ticket to be over. “The matter is closed,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said Tuesday night. “Biden is our nominee. He is in this race and I support him.”

But Pelosi’s comments appeared designed to give alarmed Democrats, who so far are mostly falling in line behind Biden, space to pivot in the coming days, given the deep divide inside the party about whether his candidacy is viable.

The former speaker, however, quickly moved to walk back any sense that she herself was suggesting that Biden leave the race.

“The president is great, and there are some misrepresentations of what I have said,” she said in a statement to the Times. “I never said he should reconsider his decision. The decision is the president’s. I don’t know what’s happened to The New York Times that they make up news. It isn’t true.”

Later in the day, she told ABC News that she thought Biden could win in November.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday night that he did not think Biden could beat Trump – though he stopped short of publicly urging Biden to end his campaign. “I think we could lose the whole thing,” Bennet said, warning of a “landslide” in the presidential race and referring to both chambers of Congress.

He added, “The White House has done nothing since the debate to demonstrate they have a plan to win this election.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.