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Tide beginning to turn in Biden’s favor — for now

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Democrats on Capitol Hill are coalescing — comfortably or not — behind the idea of keeping President Biden as their 2024 nominee despite a disastrous debate performance last month that prompted calls for him to bow out. 

At a private meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Tuesday, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers voiced their support for the president, with some hailing his leadership chops and others simply acknowledging the reality that primary voters have already made him the inevitable nominee.

Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats aired their own concerns about Biden’s chances against former President Trump during a closed-door lunch, but none called for him to be replaced as the nominee.

And at least one Democratic lawmaker who had previously opposed Biden’s candidacy, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), reversed course Tuesday.

The combination suggests that, almost two weeks after Biden’s shaky debate performance, the tide is beginning to turn for the president, who has been fiercely defiant in rejecting any hint that he quit the contest over doubts about his age, health and ability to defeat Trump in November.

“It’s certainly a better day than some of the ones he’s had before,” said Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.). “It’s moving in the right direction.” 

“I feel we’ve hit a turning point,” echoed Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “It’s been 10, 11 days or so since the debate and it’s time to move on. And I think that’s where many more members are today than they were last week.”

Biden has also locked down support from key veteran lawmakers and large constituencies in the chamber. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the former Democratic majority leader, said he is “absolutely” still backing the president. Scores of members from the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus said they are standing with Biden through November. And Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has left the door open to a Vice President Harris run, told reporters that Biden has vast support in the caucus. 

“We’re ridin’ with Biden,” Clyburn said after the House meeting.

But Biden may not be in the clear after his debate performance last month raised immediate alarms that the president, despite a strong legislative track record, is simply unable to promote that record on the campaign trail.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), hours after Democrats’ morning meeting, issued a statement saying she simply lacks the confidence in Biden’s ability to defeat Trump at the polls. 

“The stakes are too high — and the threat is too real — to stay silent,” she said in a statement.

She became the seventh House Democrat to publicly come out against keeping Biden at the top of the ticket, joining Reps. Mike Quigley (Ill.), Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and Seth Moulton (Mass.), who all spoke out during the caucus meeting.

In the upper chamber, meanwhile, no senators have called for Biden to step aside. But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of Democratic leadership, said Monday that “we need to see a much more forceful and energetic candidate on the campaign trail in the very near future in order for [Biden] to convince voters he is up to the job.”

And a person familiar with the Senate discussion said the “vast majority” of senators who spoke at the meeting expressed serious concerns about Biden’s ability to beat Trump after his disastrous debate performance.

Yet those voices still constitute a minority of Democrats overall. And the clearest evidence that the sands might be shifting in Biden’s favor — at least in the moment — came from Nadler, who had voiced reservations on Sunday about keeping Biden at the top of the ticket during a phone call with top Democrats, but changed his tune Tuesday to support the president.

“Whether I have concerns or not is beside the point,” Nadler told reporters before the meeting. “He’s going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him.”

The shift came after days when Biden and his team had moved aggressively to tamp down any internal dissent and prevent the slow drip of Democratic detractors from becoming an irrepressible flood. 

On Monday, Biden sent a spirited letter to congressional Democrats vowing to remain in the race and urging an “end” to the calls for his exit. He also called into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to challenge his Democratic detractors to try to take him out at the convention. And hours later, he staged a call with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, perhaps his strongest base of support, with promises to prioritize some of their favored issues in a second term. 

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a Biden supporter, said he was encouraged by the “focus, energy and vigor” demonstrated by the heightened outreach efforts. 

“The president is coming out fighting — fighting back with some energy,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need to do. Because the mistake that was made in 2016 was: a low-key campaign and running not to lose. And that’s how we lost.” 

Biden has also won the support of prominent liberal lawmakers. 

“I have spoken to the president over the weekend. I have spoken with him extensively. He made clear then — and he has made clear since — that he is in this race,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told reporters Monday night. 

“The matter is closed.”

Christy Setzer, a Democratic strategist and veteran campaign operative, said Biden’s tactical — and thus far, largely successful — quest for support in Congress is leaving his critics with few options. 

“President Biden this week showed that in addition to being a masterful deal-maker, he knows the Hill as well as anyone,” Setzer said. “Locking down simultaneous support from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Squad left his detractors with few places to go.”

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, put it more bluntly: “Raw politics and Biden-esque defiance of critics has forced everyone to get in line.”

“He’s garnered enough friends over his career to lean on them for support,” he added.

Still, however, holes in that support remain.

Aside from the seven House Democrats who have already called publicly for Biden to step aside, many others have voiced those sentiments privately but are awaiting the arrival of postdebate polls to make any public pronouncements.

Fueling those concerns, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report on Tuesday shifted the presidential contest in five states and one district in the GOP’s direction.

In another sign of more potential headwinds for Biden, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a co-chair of the House Democrats’ messaging arm, published a statement shortly after the morning huddle that raised concerns about the president’s pursuit for a second term.

“[S]ince the debate, I have met with fellow Biden voters in Massachusetts who have real concerns about the President’s ability to beat Donald Trump. I share those concerns,” she wrote. “While President Biden has made clear he feels he is the best candidate to win this election, nothing that has happened over the past twelve days suggests that voters see things the same way.”

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who is running for Senate in the Garden State, told the New Jersey Globe that he retains “concerns” about Biden’s fitness and said there’s still enough time for Democrats to make “a switch” if need be. 

Even Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, appeared to leave the door open to replacing Biden. Asked if Biden has done enough to assuage Democratic concerns, the No. 3 House Democrat suggested the president still has plenty of work to do to show voters that the debate was just a bad night, and he still has the energy and acuity to lead the country for another four years. 

“My answer is, you know, we’ll see,” Aguilar said. 

“Let’s see the press conference. Let’s see the campaign stops. Let’s see all of this, because all of it is going to be necessary,” he added. “The president knows that he did not have a good debate performance. He knows that he has to be out there in people’s districts, out in the communities, out in these tough states. He knows that, and that’s what we’ll see in the days and weeks ahead.”

Caroline Vakil, Aris Folley and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.