By:
July 8, 2024

There were two general reactions from Democrats (and some media) in the days following President Joe Biden’s abysmal performance in the June 27 presidential debate against Donald Trump.

The first was full-fledged panic and appeals for Biden to drop out of the race. That included editorials and commentary from some of the most noted newspapers and newsmakers in the country.

The other was a more measured approach, one that chalked it all up to Biden having a bad night. But along with that thinking were calls for Biden to become more visible. CNN’s Jake Tapper suggested that Biden have a no-constraints, no-time-limit press conference where he could show his strength, stamina and acumen.

Instead, Biden’s first major moment — and first on TV — to address everything was an , which aired last Friday night.

About the debate, Biden said he had a “bad night.” He said he was sick. He went after Trump. He vowed to keep fighting, saying that only the “Lord Almighty” would get him to drop out of the race.

He certainly performed better than he did in the debate, but not so much so that he erased the doubts about him and calmed the nerves of his detractors.

, “Biden needed a game changer. This wasn’t it.”

, “Biden appeared too frail to defeat Donald Trump and too delusional to end his campaign. … Biden’s remarks indicated that his party may be heading toward a worst-case scenario, one in which the president is largely incompetent as a campaigner but not so consistently and flagrantly inept that his incapacity to win reelection becomes undeniable, even to himself.”

, “Biden’s prime-time interview with Stephanopoulos will do nothing to reassure people worried about a Biden defeat. Stephanopoulos hectored him with nonstop and repetitive questions about his mental acuity for the full 22-minute session, which undoubtedly made Biden defensive. But the president seemed to be in denial about the magnitude of the problem facing him, unwilling even to acknowledge the obvious truth that he has lost a step over the past 3½ years.”

Even someone very close to Biden — his former press secretary, Jen Psaki — gave Biden a mixed review. On her Sunday MSNBC show, Psaki said, “In many ways, people watching saw what they wanted to see. Because for some he looked better than he did at the debate he did, he was more clear, he seemed much better prepared to make his case and make the case against Trump. But there were also some moments and not just one that did not go well.”

The number of people who watched the interview on TV was 8.1 million. That’s not bad for a Friday night, but nowhere near the 51 million that watched the debate. Then again, there’s no telling how many watched through other means — social media, websites, and so on.

And for those who didn’t see the interview but have read about it, the message was pretty much all the same. , “Biden may have calmed some nerves among some political allies with the interview, but he didn’t show the facility and coherence that Democrats would have wanted to see. His thoughts were, at times, scattered and less than clear.”

So now what?

Will Biden continue on in the race? Will there be more calls for him to step aside? Will he listen to anyone outside of his inner circle, which seems to be encouraging him to plow ahead?

On Psaki’s MSNBC show, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted that this is a big week in Washington as lawmakers return from the holiday break. And there could be a gathering storm of Democratic leaders — whose major focus is to keep Trump out of the White House — urging Biden to walk away.

Newspapers and networks have turned on a steady stream of stories quoting more and more saying Biden should not run.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff from California told moderator Kristen Welker, “Given Biden’s incredible record and given Trump’s terrible record he should be mopping the floor with Donald Trump. It should not be even close, and the reason it is close is the president’s age.”

Schiff suggests that Biden’s age is an issue, but also did bring up something many Democratic voters want to focus on: Trump’s candidacy. Why are we talking about Biden when we should be talking about Trump, they ask. In fact, it’s surely something that Biden is asking.

In his Post column, Milbank put it well: “Biden’s frustration is understandable. He has amassed an impressive record of achievement. The presidential race should be about that, and about Trump’s lies, and the unique threat he poses to American democracy.”

However, Milbank smartly added, “Biden aides blame the news media for carping on his gaffes since the debate. Democrats’ tendency to panic is also blamed. But the problem is real. The country is talking about Biden’s mental capacity instead of the singular menace of Trump returning to power. And if this keeps up, that is exactly what will happen. It’s not at all clear that Biden can change that storyline without doing what a man standing behind Biden onstage at his Wisconsin rally Friday afternoon recommended with the poster he held up: ‘Pass the torch, Joe.’”

As far as the ABC News interview, and the future, Schiff said on “Meet the Press,” “The interview didn’t put concerns to rest. No single interview was going to do that. And what I do think the president needs to decide is, can he put those concerns aside? Can he demonstrate to the American people that what happened on the debate stage was an aberration, that he can and will beat Donald Trump? Given this Supreme Court decision now essentially making any future Trump a dictator and a king, it’s all the more important. But here’s the thing, I think: If the president takes the time to consult people and has an open mind about this, he will do what Joe Biden always does, which is he will make the right decision. He’ll make the decision in the best interests of the country. That’s what he has always done, and I’m confident that’s what he will do here.”

Well done

We shouldn’t be surprised, but Stephanopoulos did a solid job interviewing Biden, hitting all the notes in the 22-minute sit-down.

, “The newsman gently but firmly prodded Biden on his motivations for staying in the race after last week’s halting and unfocused debate performance.”

, “Very good interview by @gstephanopoulos — persistent & tough, but not mean. His toughest questions were delivered with empathy.”

But that doesn’t mean Stephanopoulos lobbed up a bunch of softballs. In fact, in one particularly insightful question, Stephanopoulos asked, “If you stay in, and Trump is elected, and everything you’re warning about comes to pass, how will you feel in January?”

(For the record, Biden said, “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”)

Stephanopoulos also pushed Biden, asking him if he felt more frail, and had suffered more “lapses” and if he had seen a doctor.

, “The president arrived at the ABC interview on Friday tanned and tieless, his top two shirt buttons undone, making every effort to project youth and vitality. Yet a viewer could not help but imagine the mop-haired Mr. Stephanopoulos in the role of an adult son, guiding an elderly parent toward a conclusion that may be difficult, and deeply painful, to accept.”

Grynbaum added, “It is too soon to say if their 22-minute encounter on Friday, taped in the library of a Wisconsin middle school and broadcast by ABC in prime time, will count among the most consequential interviews in presidential history. But it carried some of the highest stakes.”

And, overall, Stephanopoulos was up to the challenge.

A controversial interview

The Stephanopoulos interview is getting most of the attention, but Biden actually did another interview that turned out way more controversial — at least in media circles.

Last Wednesday, Biden was interviewed by Andrea Lawful-Sanders, host at Black talk radio station WURD in Philadelphia. On Saturday, and revealed to host Victor Blackwell that she asked four questions that had been given to her by Biden’s team.

“The questions were sent to me for approval; I approved of them,” Lawful-Sanders said on the air.

Blackwell followed up to confirm the Biden camp had sent the questions, and Lawful-Sanders said, “I got several questions. Eight of them. And the four that were chosen were the ones that I approved.”

On Sunday, Sara M. Lomax, president and CEO at WURD Radio, put out a saying that the station and Lawful-Sanders had agreed to part ways.

Lomax wrote, “On July 3, the first post-debate interview with President Joe Biden was arranged and negotiated independently by WURD Radio host Andrea Lawful-Sanders without knowledge, consultation or collaboration with WURD management. The interview featured pre-determined questions provided by the White House, which violates our practice of remaining an independent media outlet accountable to our listeners. As a result, Ms. Lawful-Sanders and WURD Radio have mutually agreed to part ways, effective immediately.”

Lomax wrote that WURD has built up trust with audiences over 20 years, adding, “This is something we take very seriously. Agreeing to a predetermined set of questions jeopardizes that trust and is not a practice that WURD Radio engages in or endorses as a matter of practice or official policy.”

Lomax also wrote, “WURD Radio is not a mouthpiece for the Biden or any other Administration. Internally, we will commit to reviewing our policies, procedures, and practices to reinforce WURD’s independence and trust with our listeners. But mainstream media should do its own introspection to explore how they have lost the trust of so many Americans, Black Americans chief among them. This experience will strengthen WURD as we seek to grow from this incident.”

Lawful-Sanders posted a , saying she had tendered her resignation and that it had been accepted. She went on to thank the station and her listeners.

A story to note

President Joe Biden, walking with First Lady Jill Biden, on the White House lawn on Sunday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer, Tyler Pager and Josh Dawsey had an interesting read over the weekend about the presidential debate and what has gone wrong for Biden since then:

The Post wrote, “This story, about one of the most consequential weeks of modern presidential politics, is based on interviews with more than three dozen aides, advisers, lawmakers, governors and other Biden allies, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Together they paint a picture of the Biden team’s failure over the past nine days to contain a crisis that is tarnishing his legacy and threatens his presidency.”

There’s a lot to digest, so read the story. But I did want to point out this passage: “For years, top supporters had been wary of his candidacy, but they respected him too much to intervene. They were proud of his accomplishments. Incumbents tend to be reelected. Biden beat Trump before. They pushed aside the obvious. None of it was a state secret. Biden, 81, had been losing his train of thought in public for years as president. His voice, once bombastic, meandered to mumble. The ‘fingertip politician’ energy of the Barack Obama years had gone stiff and wooden. It was getting worse.”

Good stuff

Marquee Sports Network, which televises Chicago Cubs games, did something cool on Sunday. It had an all-female announcing team, with Beth Mowins doing play-by-play, Elise Menaker as analyst and Taylor McGregor working as the field reporter.

Mowins has been doing selected Cubs games since 2021. She also calls lots of college sports, especially football and basketball, for ESPN. Menaker is a former college softball player who has done pregame and postgame shows for the Cubs. She also did analysis on a Cubs TV broadcast in 2022 and served as the main game analyst on a Cubs radio broadcast in 2023.

, “I think it’s just one of those cool moments that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of in some other sports. And to be here with true pros, I think that’s the most important thing. We’ve worked our way up through the ranks and hopefully have earned the respect of not only one another, but our peers and our co-workers. And to have earned the opportunity to be in this chair now, today, you just hope you’re at your best in the big moment.”

Media tidbits

  • Big breaking news Sunday night in the media/entertainment industry. The Los Angeles Times’ Meg James and Samantha Masunaga with:
  • And from The New York Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Lauren Hirsch reported:
  • And one more from The Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Toonkel:
  • The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear and Michael M. Grynbaum with “
  • For Politico, Rachel Janfaza with
  • Fox News’ Sean Hannity will interview Donald Trump tonight on his show at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Hot type

  • For The New York Times Magazine, Taffy Brodesser-Akner with
  • “CBS News Sunday Morning” and correspondent Lee Cowan with

More resources for journalists

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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