American media heavyweights tell president: it’s time to quit

<span>Trump supporters at a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, the day after the presidential debate.</span><span>Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA</span>
Trump supporters at a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, the day after the presidential debate.Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Amid a howling chorus of derision over Joe Biden’s substandard debate performance against Donald Trump, one voice seemed to resonate more powerfully than others.

At 6.15pm on Friday – roughly 19 hours after the two presidential candidates left the stage in Atlanta the previous evening – the verdict of the New York Timess editorial board dropped online to the newspaper’s subscribers.

The judgment was devastating. The US president, the board forcefully argued, had presented such an alarming spectacle of aged frailty that the best thing he could now do for the country he had served for more than half a century was to withdraw from the race and allow his Democratic party to choose another candidate.

The newspaper long venerated as “the old Grey Lady” of American journalism pointed out that Biden had presented himself as the figure best positioned to defeat the threat to democracy represented by Trump – and acknowledged that he had successfully done so in 2020.

“But the greatest public service Mr Biden can now perform is to announce that he will not continue to run for re-election,” it intoned.

“As it stands, the president is engaged in a reckless gamble. There are Democratic leaders better equipped to present clear, compelling and energetic alternatives to a second Trump presidency … It’s too big a bet to simply hope Americans will overlook or discount Mr Biden’s age and infirmity that they see with their own eyes.”

The judgment evoked memories of February 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the magisterial CBS anchor, used his television platform to openly question the US military commitment in Vietnam after the Vietcong launched an offensive that led to guerrillas storming the US embassy compound in Saigon. Watching, President Lyndon Johnson – another Democratic president, to whom Biden is sometimes compared – reportedly said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Just over a month later, Johnson withdrew from that year’s presidential election, announcing he would not seek a second term.

Times have changed since 1968; media has become more fragmented, with newspapers and, arguably, television less influential. Biden’s response to the editorial – if he has even seen it – is unknown.

Yet the article echoed equally eviscerating critiques from other weighty and normally friendly sources – some of them so respected by the president that their views cannot have failed to wound.

Similarly pleading with Biden to stand down were his favourite columnist, Tom Friedman – also of the New York Times – who wrote that he had wept as he watched the debate from Lisbon.

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe – a programme the president is known to revere – had an identical message, all the while saying that he “loved” Biden and calling his presidency “an unqualified success”.

The highly respected, and liberal, website the Atlantic published six articles on Friday, all arguing for an end to the Biden candidacy.

The media cacophony reflected shock with the persona that Biden, 81, presented in the debate. Rather than allay nagging voter concerns that he was too old to run – his campaign’s goal when it pressed for the event – he seemed to confirm them with his octogenarian mien. He looked infirm and sometimes stuck for words, in contrast to Trump, who – although just three years younger – presented a picture of fluent, if mendacious, loquacity.

Biden came out swinging on Friday, appearing much more upbeat at an election rally in North Carolina, admitting that “I don’t debate as well as I used to” but telling a cheering crowd: “I know how to tell the truth … I know how to do this job. I know – like millions of Americans know – when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Messages of public support poured in from Democratic luminaries including Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, vice-president Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom, the governor of California.

Yet the defiantly positive messaging is unlikely to soothe fears that reach into the upper echelons of the Democratic party and even into the White House itself.

Several officials in the presidential West Wing were so demoralised by Thursday’s debate that they opted to work from home the following day, Politico reported, expressing their fears on text threads.

“We were all a bit nervous about the debate, but no one thought it was going to be as bad as it was,” one West Wing staffer was quoted as saying. “The vibes are really bad. People feel demoralised.”

The acid test may be whether demoralisation extends to Democratic donors – a sensitive area, given that Trump has recently overtaken Biden in campaign fundraising after lagging for months.

The early signs are hardly encouraging. The debate triggered waves of panic among Democratic mega-donors in Silicon Valley, where some have emailed and texted each other about how to persuade Jill Biden, the first lady, into talking her husband out of running.

One tech-industry donor who had planned to host Biden in a fundraiser reportedly cancelled the event because of the debate.

The negative drumbeat has focused minds on alternatives if Biden does step aside. Two frontrunners would be Harris and Newsom, yet both have vulnerabilities. Harris, who would be the first woman of colour to be a main party’s presidential nominee, is plagued by low approval ratings barely higher than Biden’s, while Newsom’s term as governor of California has drawn criticism over high taxes, surging homelessness and rising housing costs.

Other likely names are Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, and Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, both leaders of key swing states the Democrats need to win to keep the White House. Another possibility – the Illinois governor, JB Pritzker– a billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel chain fortune – has won attention for his acerbic attacks on Trump.

But with Biden apparently determined to stand his ground, it remains to be seen if the current discontent is strong enough to transform such speculation into reality.

For that to happen, drastic action may be required, such as an eminent group of Democratic party elders approaching the president and persuading him to withdraw.

Alternatively, one or more credible candidates could declare a public intention to challenge him – potentially throwing the power of nomination to delegates at the Democratic national convention in August, an event that was expected to rubber-stamp Biden’s candidacy.

Either scenario would take political will, yet neither is far-fetched, according to seasoned commentators.

If either come to pass, Biden may end up reflecting that the New York Timess withering verdict was indeed his Walter Cronkite moment.