World

Biden’s Tough Week: The President Faces Personal and Political Setbacks

It says something about the way things have been going for President Biden lately that being targeted for impeachment was not the worst news of a tough week.

To be sure, it was not a highlight. But over the course of the past seven days, Mr. Biden was besieged on multiple fronts, both personal and political, challenging his capacity, threatening his family and jeopardizing his political position.

He was panned by critics for his performance at an overseas news conference. One of his favorite columnists urged him not to run again, sparking more hand wringing in his party. A top ally implicitly questioned his choice of running mate. The auto industry fell into a paralyzing strike that could undermine the economy. His son was indicted on three felony charges. And oh yes, House Republicans opened an impeachment inquiry aimed at charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors.

Politics in Washington being what it is today, Mr. Biden and his team exhibited no particular concern over the course of events. After a rocky campaign and two and a half turbulent years in office, they have become accustomed to the gyrations of the modern presidency. Facing a disagreeable short view, they prefer to take the long view, comforting themselves, and arguing to outsiders, that it will work out all right in the end because it has worked out all right before.

And Mr. Biden has been blessed by helpful enemies, who now appear poised to provoke an unpopular government shutdown at the same time they pursue an impeachment inquiry that even some Republican lawmakers say is not based on evidence of an impeachable offense. If there is anything that could rally disaffected Democrats and independents, the president’s strategists believe, it is Republican overreach.

Conservatives mocked Mr. Biden for his speech in Hanoi, Vietnam.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

“President Biden was underestimated two years ago and then he went on to pass historic legislation that has led the U.S. to have the strongest recovery of any developed economy in the world,” Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director, said on Friday. “We don’t get distracted by Washington parlor games that most Americans are entirely uninterested in.”

Avoiding distraction is hardly easy. Mr. Biden was told of the indictment against his son Hunter Biden on Thursday just before leaving the White House to give a speech in Maryland assailing Republican budget plans, forcing him to put the consequences out of his mind long enough to deliver the talk and work the rope lines.

He said nothing about the indictment and little about the rest of the setbacks of the week in public, although there was a moment at an evening campaign fund-raising reception when he lamented the changing culture of politics since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972.

“Did you ever think you would have to worry about going through protests where you see people standing with their little kids giving you the middle finger and have banners saying, ‘F the Democrat’?” he asked Democratic donors at a private home in McLean, Va. “It’s becoming debased, our public disgust,” he added. “We just have to change it.”

The week started in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he gave a news conference on Sunday evening that conservatives quickly mocked because of a few rambling moments and an odd reference to John Wayne. Mr. Biden had barely landed back home and gotten a few hours sleep before Speaker Kevin McCarthy opened an impeachment inquiry accusing the president of corruption without evidence that he had either profited from his son’s business dealings or misused his power to help.

The next day, the president picked up The Washington Post to find a column by David Ignatius, who has enjoyed considerable access to the Biden White House, arguing that despite what he considered a laudable record, the 80-year-old president should not run for another term next year. The column caused much buzzing in Washington because Mr. Ignatius has broad respect in the nation’s capital as a reasoned voice often supportive of the president and represents the establishment whose approval Mr. Biden has long craved.

Mr. Ignatius’s plea for the president to reconsider his decision to seek a second term resonated among many Democrats deeply anxious about his prospects but reluctant to say so out loud for fear of undermining him. Mr. Ignatius addressed the matter on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC show that Mr. Biden is known to watch, with much discussion of whether the president was too old for another term, as polls show many voters believe.

Just hours later, Senator Mitt Romney, one of the most prominent Republican critics of former President Donald J. Trump, announced that he would retire in favor of “a new generation of leaders” and urged Mr. Biden to do the same. Charlie Cook, a well-regarded nonpartisan election analyst, then weighed in with a column making the case for the president stepping aside.

A crowd listening to Mr. Biden speak on Thursday at Prince George’s County Community College in Largo, Md.Credit…Anna Rose Layden for The New York Times

Hunter Biden’s indictment was followed on Friday by the first union strike against all three major American automakers, a seismic disruption of a key industry with uncertain effects on the economy. White House officials were watching the situation in Detroit with some trepidation, reasoning that a short strike would not make much difference in the long run but an extended walkout could unsettle the economy at a tenuous moment.

While many Democrats for months have privately hoped for what Mr. Ignatius publicly voiced, there is no indication that Mr. Biden is or would consider abandoning his re-election campaign. Advisers say privately that the idea never comes up and would be ludicrous. If anything, the importunings of the “chattering class,” as they like to put it, would push Mr. Biden, who believes he is consistently underestimated, in the opposite direction.

“The Ignatius thing probably did break his heart, however that’s the kind of thing that forces him and the campaign and his family into their comfort zone of being underdogs,” said Michael LaRosa, a former spokesman for Jill Biden. “The way they view it is: You guys said he couldn’t win last time, he couldn’t win from the center, he couldn’t beat Bernie, he couldn’t bring back bipartisanship, he couldn’t beat Trump, he couldn’t win the midterms. That’s how they see things.”

There is no class of elder statesmen who might persuade Mr. Biden of the opposite, no one he would listen to, according to Democratic strategists. Mr. Biden is said to still resent former President Barack Obama for gently pressing him not to run in 2016, and his relationship with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is complicated by conflicting ambitions.

The only ones who might persuade Mr. Biden to change his mind would be his own family, particularly Jill Biden, who talked him out of running for president in 2004. But by all accounts, she and other family members strongly support another campaign, viewing any alternative as a capitulation to the doubters who never believed in the president and the enemies who in her view have weaponized their family against him.

For all the concern in the party — and interviews make clear it is deeper than White House officials are willing to acknowledge — there is also a sense of resignation among many Democrats that there are no obvious alternatives to Mr. Biden ready and able to beat Mr. Trump.

Jill Biden talked Mr. Biden out of running for president in 2004.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Even former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has worked closely with Mr. Biden to pass his legislative agenda, seemed to call Vice President Kamala Harris into doubt in an interview this week. Asked on CNN twice if she were the best running mate for Mr. Biden, Ms. Pelosi did not directly say yes. “He thinks so,” she said of the president, “and that’s what matters.”

Keeping Mr. Trump out of the Oval Office is such a paramount goal for Democrats that even skeptics of Mr. Biden within the party are increasingly coming to the conclusion that it is too late to think about an alternative and more important now to rally around him.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who was seen as a possible candidate if Mr. Biden did not run, recently told fellow Democrats it was “time for all of us to get on the train and buck up,” as he put it in an interview.

Donna Brazile, a former Democratic Party chair, insisted that reports of hand wringing are overwrought. “No matter his age or accomplishment, Democrats must begin to focus on every branch of government, preserving our democracy, inspiring young people to run for office and vote — not to mention raise money and run as if we are 10 points behind,” she said. “There’s only one way to win: You have to believe in the candidates on the ballot.”

So far, the polling has been unforgiving, undercutting Mr. Biden’s argument that he is the safest choice to defeat Mr. Trump. Multiple surveys have shown him statistically tied with his predecessor, and his approval rating has remained mired around 40 percent despite improving economic conditions.

Mr. Biden’s advisers dismiss such findings, noting that Ronald Reagan, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama all rebounded from low approval ratings to win re-election handily. Mr. Biden’s campaign has already started airing ads in battleground states, and advisers argue that when the time comes for a choice that matters, voters will return to Mr. Biden rather than switch to an unpopular challenger who has been indicted four times, including for trying to subvert democracy.

In the meantime, they said, no one should worry about one week or another. The president survived plenty of tough weeks before pushing through landmark legislation and enacting other major policy goals. After a half-century in politics, they said, he has seen it all and he sets the tone for his White House.

“When I read these stories on Biden’s age or polling status, it reminds me of what I used to tell the staff,” said Ms. Brazile. “Keep your head down, make your phone calls and just do the work.”

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