Four Takeaways From Biden’s Post-Debate Interview


He downplayed. He denied. He dismissed.

President Biden’s first television interview since his poor debate performance last week was billed as a prime-time opportunity to reassure the American people that he still has what it takes to run for, win and hold the nation’s highest office.

But Mr. Biden, with more than a hint of hoarseness in his voice, spent much of the 22 minutes resisting a range of questions that George Stephanopoulos of ABC News had posed — about his competence, about taking a cognitive test, about his standing in the polls.

The president on Friday did not struggle to complete his thoughts the way he did at the debate. But at the same time he was not the smooth-talking senator of his youth, or even the same elder statesman whom the party entrusted four years ago to defeat former President Donald J. Trump.

Instead, it was a high-stakes interview with an 81-year-old president whose own party is increasingly doubting him yet who sounded little like a man with any doubts about himself.

Here are four takeaways:

The interview was Mr. Biden’s longest unscripted appearance in public since his faltering debate performance. The delay has had his allies on Capitol Hill and beyond confused about what was keeping the president cloistered behind closed doors — or depending upon teleprompters — for so long.

The eight-day lag has seen the first members of Congress call for him to step aside and donors demand that the party consider switching candidates. It also heightened the scrutiny of every word Mr. Biden said.

He was in a defensive posture throughout, arguing that his past performance should be proof enough about his capacity in the future.

It was a bad episode,” the president said. “No indication of any serious condition.”

He blamed exhaustion but also being so sick ahead of the debate that his doctors tested him for Covid-19. But what he would not agree to was any kind of neurological examination.

“Look, I have a cognitive test every single day. Every day, I have that test,” Mr. Biden said, suggesting that the job of the presidency was its own type of test. He declined repeatedly to sit for an independent exam.

Mr. Biden’s challenge is that there is little he can say in a single interview to solve the fallout of a stumbling performance that tens of millions of Americans watched live.

Some of Mr. Biden’s answers were neither compelling nor cohesive.

He paused for multiple seconds early in the interview after Mr. Stephanopoulos asked what had gone wrong a week earlier.

“The whole way I prepared, nobody’s fault mine. Nobody’s fault but mine,” Mr. Biden eventually said. “I, uh, prepared what I usually would do, sitting down as I did, come back with foreign leaders or National Security Council for explicit detail. And I realized about partway through that, you know, I quoted The New York Times had me down 10 points before the debate, 9 now or whatever the hell it is. The fact of the matter is that what I looked at is that he also lied 28 times. I couldn’t, I mean, the way the debate ran, not — my fault, no one else’s fault — no one else’s fault.”

The answer was meandering and circular, even if it was not as bad as his worst moments at the debate in Atlanta. But it was hardly a crisp and concise reassurance for members of his party squinting to imagine what a second debate with Mr. Trump might look like in September.

Mr. Biden did make some arguments against Mr. Trump and for himself.

But on the central question at hand — his debate performance and what it projected about the future — Mr. Biden did not have much more to say, other than a brief aside that Mr. Trump was “still shouting” even after his microphone had been turned off and that he had let it distract him.

“I just had a bad night” was about the totality of Mr. Biden’s explanation. “I don’t know why.”

The reality that some of the president’s allies have come to accept is that nearly every Biden interview, public appearance or utterance for the foreseeable future is going to come under a harsh new spotlight.

Roughly three-quarters of voters now see Mr. Biden as too old to be an effective president, according to a post-debate poll by The New York Times and Siena College.

Mr. Biden, though, is a believer in his own story as a man who takes on adversity — “America’s comeback kid,” Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey called him at a fund-raiser two days after the debate.

Mr. Biden and people close to him still hold a chip on their shoulders about how he won the 2020 presidential nomination after months of being written off.

“Look, I remember them telling me the same thing in 2020,” he said, quoting his critics. “‘I can’t win. The polls show I can’t win.’”

Four years ago, the Democratic Party did rally behind Mr. Biden with remarkable speed when he appeared the strongest candidate to take on Mr. Trump. But polling today paints a murkier picture on that critical question.

What was clear is that Mr. Biden is already thinking about himself in the pantheon of past presidents. He cited the opinion of an unnamed group of economists and foreign policy experts to render this flattering judgment:

“If I stop now, I’d go down in history as a pretty successful president.”

Mr. Biden set an awfully high bar for what it would take for him to step aside.

“If the Lord Almighty comes down and tells me that, I might do that,” he said.

Mr. Biden repeatedly waved off polling that Mr. Stephanopoulos cited to show Mr. Biden’s weakness, including a 36 percent approval rating. “That’s not what our polls show,” Mr. Biden snapped. He said “all the pollsters” whom he speaks with tell him the race is a “tossup.”

It was not the words of a man ready to exit the stage.

As Mr. Biden said earlier in the day at a rally in Madison, Wis., “They’re trying to push me out of the race. Let me say this as clearly as I can: I’m staying in the race.”

When Mr. Stephanopoulos pressed him about the burbling discontent among Democratic elected officials, Mr. Biden shrugged it off. “I’ve seen it from the press,” he said.

Perhaps the most revealing answer came when Mr. Biden was asked about how he would feel if Mr. Trump were being sworn in as president in January.

“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,” Mr. Biden said. (The original ABC transcript rendered the quote as “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.”)

Of course, for a Democratic Party warning that Mr. Trump is an existential threat to the nation, the race is about something much simpler: winning.

The Times revised Mr. Biden’s quote in this article about how he would feel if he loses the election after White House officials and several news organizations contacted ABC on Friday about whether Mr. Biden had said “goodest” or “good as.” ABC’s standards team listened again to the audio and made the change. Mr. Biden’s actual words at that point in the interview were difficult to make out and open to interpretation.

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