Biden faces a volatile stretch as the first lady heads to Georgia

Congress returns to Washington for first time since presidential debate
President Joe Biden speaks to supporters as first lady Jill Biden, left, looks on at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Sunday, July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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President Joe Biden speaks to supporters as first lady Jill Biden, left, looks on at a campaign rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Sunday, July 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Joe Biden is entering one of the toughest stretches of his political career as he faces intensifying calls from Democrats to withdraw from the November race.

The volatile week begins Monday when first lady Jill Biden — who has been adamant that her husband stay in the race — arrives in Columbus to rally supporters. It’s the most significant campaign event in Georgia since the June 27 debate at CNN’s studios in Atlanta.

Adding to the tumult, congressional Democrats will return to Washington for the first time since the debate. At least five U.S. House Democrats have pressed Biden to step aside, and roughly a dozen others have raised concerns about his reelection chances in a close race against Republican Donald Trump.

Seeking to prove he is up for the job, Biden spent the long holiday weekend headlining a series of campaign events, including two on Sunday in Pennsylvania. And he is set to hold a closely-watched news conference at a NATO summit in Washington.

 President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive at Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown, Pa., on Sunday, July 7, 2024. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

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Democrats are girding for a new phase in the messy battle between the president and a donors, activists and elected officials who say his dismal debate against Trump in Atlanta confirmed doubts about his ability to win another term.

Among those returning to Washington on Monday are U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, of Georgia. Both issued supportive statements about Biden and aren’t expected to join an effort by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia to dissuade the president from running.

Their allegiance reflects the stance of most party leaders and influential activists, who have reaffirmed their blessing of the incumbent. But other key Democratic players in Georgia have more privately raised sharp concerns about his chances.

Biden has sought to quell the fears with a weekend rally in Wisconsin and a primetime ABC interview. Some Biden allies were buoyed by his performance, while others said the weekend of events only solidified their worries.

Rochelle Jackson (Center) cheers as Parker Short The president of Georgia Young Democrats speaks at the Biden-Harris and Georgia Democrats for DeKalb County Office Opening in Decatur Saturday, July 6, 2024   (Steve Schaefer / AJC)

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Pressed in the interview about how he would feel if he stayed in the race and Trump won, Biden responded: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the goodest job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”

In Georgia, a swing state where Biden’s narrow win over Trump in 2020 helped him take the White House, anxious Democrats are eager to seize any opportunity to project unity. A mundane campaign office opening Saturday became a test of Democratic enthusiasm for Biden, drawing a large crowd that packed the DeKalb County venue.

Still some Democrats in the state have a less rosy view. At Ponce City Market in Atlanta on Sunday, Jasmine Burnett said she wasn’t shocked by Biden’s debate performance.

“Not to be crass, but sometimes it feels like the lights are on but nobody’s home,” the Democrat said. “Which is troubling.”

Still, she said she expects the race to come down to Biden vs. Trump.

“Who else are you going to run at this point? We vote in November,” Burnett said.

Party insiders in Biden’s camp hope the president can contain the fallout for another week in the runup to the Republican National Convention, giving them a chance to shift the narrative to Trump’s agenda.

‘In a purgatory’

Biden’s allies — and critics — fanned out to deliver their assessments on the Sunday cable shows.

Some Democrats expected to see a more aggressive campaign schedule, starting with plans to rally in Michigan later this week.

”If there’s a silver lining I think that’s come out of this debate, it’s let Joe be Joe,” U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla of California told MSNBC.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, pointed out on CBS’s “Face the Nation” he has held multiple events for Biden in Ohio, New York and Wisconsin.

”What we are talking about now is not a Grammy Award contest for best singer,” Sanders said.

“Biden is old. He’s not as articulate as he once was. I wish he could jump up the steps on Air Force One. He can’t. What we have got to focus on is policy — whose policies have and will benefit the vast majority of the people in this country.”

And the president was showered with chants of “four more years” after he spoke to Black congregants at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia.

”We’re all imperfect beings,” he said. “We don’t know where or what fate will deliver us to or when. But we do know is that we can seek a life of light, hope, love and truth no matter what. We can seek that life.”

President Joe Biden speaks at a church service at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, Sunday, July 7, 2024, in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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Several Democrats, however, painted a bleaker picture of Biden’s November outlook or called on him to be more assertive by holding more rallies, press conferences and town halls.

Jen Psaki, Biden’s former press secretary, put it this way on her MSNBC show on Sunday: “The panic inside the Democratic Party has definitely not gone away.”

She added: “We’re sort of in a purgatory, in my view, at least in terms of where the broad swath of the public and elected officials sit.”

Polls have shown the president’s support, already wobbly, slipping since the debate.

Most national and battleground polls show Biden with a single-digit deficit and Republicans in Georgia, once antsy about Biden’s chances of recapturing the state are now only rooting for him to stay on the ticket.

“I can say with confidence that Trump is going to win Georgia if Biden remains the Democratic nominee,” said GOP strategist Brian Robinson.

-Staff Writer David Aaro contributed to this story