Nothing to See Here? White House Portrays Biden’s Debate Performance as a Blip

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Seventy-two hours after the debate in Atlanta last week, President Biden and those closest to him have settled on the same strategy police officers use to shoo bystanders away from a car crash: “Nothing to see here.”

According to the talking points being repeated by the president’s aides and surrogates, the debate was a 90-minute blip in a long campaign. Mr. Biden didn’t have “a great night,” as he told donors Saturday, but fund-raising is going strong and he has already bounced back.

Aides have been pushing a similar message for more than a year, as polls have shown that voters are worried about the president’s age. They have brushed off such concerns, calling them little more than a creation of the media and the MAGA movement supporting the campaign of former President Donald J. Trump.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, the president’s top campaign strategist, said on Saturday that any drop in the polls would be the result of “overblown media narratives.” Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, dismissed anxiety about the president’s performance, saying on “Fox News Sunday” that “it’s like one debate.”

And yet, like the bystanders at the car crash, voters do not need to be told what happened during the face-off with Mr. Trump. They saw it with their own eyes.

“Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this,” Ben Rhodes, who was a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote on social media an hour after the debate ended on Thursday.

The president is not trying to convince voters that he won the debate or that his performance was something to brag about. But he has spent the past three days downplaying its impact, blaming the media for failing to report on Mr. Trump’s lies and insisting that voters thought his rival did worse.

At fund-raisers, speeches and other appearances, Mr. Biden has used teleprompters — something he could not use during the debate — and his aides often have shielded him from reporters. On Sunday, he was secluded with his family and top aides at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, for a visit that had been planned for months.

“Since the debate, polls show a little movement, and we’ve moved us up, actually,” Mr. Biden told donors at a fund-raiser in the Hamptons on Saturday night. Journalists were all making a mistake by talking about his performance, the president told the room full of supporters.

“The big takeaway were his lies,” Mr. Biden said, referring to Mr. Trump. “People remembered how bad things were during his presidency, how much they disliked him.”

Quentin Fulks, Mr. Biden’s deputy campaign manager, was even more direct during the staff’s weekly conference call.

“Nothing fundamentally changed about this election last night,” he insisted.

That may turn out to be true, though it will likely take some time for quality polling to determine. But in the meantime, critics of the approach say it risks making the president and his campaign seem woefully out of touch with — and even dismissive of — the voters they need to woo in order to defeat Mr. Trump in November.

Tommy Vietor, a communications alumnus of Mr. Obama’s administration and one of the hosts of the popular “Pod Save America” podcast, said the campaign cannot spin its way out of this.

“You can’t say that the future of American democracy is at stake and then tell anyone concerned about the debate last night to stop bed wetting or grow a spine,” he wrote on social media. He added a profanity, calling it “insulting to people who care deeply about the country and know how much is on the line.”

The challenge for members of Mr. Biden’s team over the next several days will be to convince Democrats that the campaign’s version of reality is, well, real. They will try to prevent more of his allies from calling for Mr. Biden to step aside, as several have already done. And they will work to refocus the race on Mr. Trump, who is making plans for an even more extreme agenda than his first term.

In the end, though, it will be up to the voters to decide what they believe. And while there were fewer people watching the debate on Thursday than in previous years, 51.3 million viewers still tuned in to see the president’s performance — the biggest audience for any event in the campaign so far.

David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, wrote over the weekend that Mr. Biden “went to pieces on CNN, in front of tens of millions of his compatriots.” To remain as the Democratic candidate, he wrote, “would be an act not only of self-delusion but of national endangerment.”

“Watching Thursday’s debate, observing Biden wander into senselessness onstage, was an agonizing experience,” Mr. Remnick said, “and it is bound to obliterate forever all those vague and qualified descriptions from White House insiders about good days and bad days.”



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