Biden privately remains torn between defiance and acceptance amid calls to step aside

WASHINGTON — In recent conversations with aides, family members and allies outside the White House, President Joe Biden has vacillated between acceptance and defiance in the face of the seismic shift in his political standing within his own party, according to four people familiar with the matter.

In some discussions, Biden has acknowledged that the blowback from his debate performance last week may grow too large to overcome, while in others he has been completely dismissive of any notion that he might walk away from his re-election campaign, these people said.

Some members of the president’s family — particularly first lady Jill Biden and their son Hunter Biden — are urging him to make changes to his staff and are increasingly conveying their views about his campaign’s strategy in an attempt to resuscitate his flailing campaign, three people familiar with the matter said.

Biden’s sister, Valerie Owens, is traveling to Washington on Thursday to join other family members at the White House for the July Fourth holiday, but she will also have face-to-face meetings about her brother’s campaign, according to a person familiar with her plans.

Biden family members have privately pointed fingers at some of his longtime aides over his disastrous debate. They have discussed whether he should fire senior White House adviser Anita Dunn, for instance, and possibly even her husband, Bob Bauer, who is Biden’s personal lawyer, two people familiar with the matter said.

Dunn and Bauer were early backers of Biden’s 2020 campaign after they showed support for his running in 2016, which he ultimately declined to do. They were among the more than a dozen Biden aides who were involved in days of preparing him for last week’s debate, with Dunn playing a moderator and Bauer playing former President Donald Trump in mock debate sessions. For more than a year, both have drawn the ire of members of the Biden family over their views that Hunter Biden should maintain a lower profile in his approach to his legal troubles.

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients denied there have been discussions about ousting Dunn or Bauer.

“The president and first lady have full confidence in their team, including Anita and Bob,” Zients said in a statement. “There is absolutely no truth to these unfounded and insulting rumors.”

A senior Democrat said: “The family is scared. These advisers are incredibly loyal and doing their jobs. This is unfounded.”

An aide said Biden has told advisers he doesn’t fault the team that prepared him for the debate for his performance.

Members of Biden’s family have been among the loudest voices rejecting any suggestion that he drop out of the race, according to people familiar with the private discussions. Biden, too, isn’t inclined to withdraw, which he has stressed in public appearances. But he is weighing his own instincts to stay and fight — and his family’s reinforcement of those instincts — against the mounting calls for him to step aside and data showing the damage his debate performance did to his re-election prospects.

“He can see that there is potentially no real path,” one of these people said. “But he’s being pushed.”

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement, “President Biden has been consistent: he is staying in the race.”

Biden began engaging with leaders in the Democratic Party over the past few days as calls for him to step aside grew and anxiety among Biden allies escalated.

Former President Barack Obama’s counsel during a phone call this week, however, didn’t sit well with Biden, who still harbors resentment toward his former boss for advising him not to run for the White House in 2016.

Obama has privately questioned the notion that he could influence Biden on such a personal decision if party leaders determined Biden needed to be persuaded to exit the race, according to two people familiar with his comments.

“President Biden appreciates President Obama’s advice and support for his leadership,” Bates, the White House spokesperson, said in a statement.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Obama pointed to his recent public comments expressing support for Biden and noting that he, too, had a bad debate when he ran for re-election in 2012.

Biden initially felt energized to press ahead with his campaign the day after the debate, buoyed by a rally Friday afternoon in North Carolina, where he got a rousing reception from the crowd, according to two people familiar with the matter. As the weekend wore on, however, the gravity of what happened on the debate stage in front of the country sank in for Biden, this person said.

His mood shifted. He was deeply wounded, and embarrassed, by a disastrous debate performance the entire world saw, NBC News has reported.

The question facing him morphed beyond just whether he could survive outside political pressure to step aside to include whether he could get to a place inside himself where he moved past the humiliation of the debate to have the confidence to get back in the ring and throw punches in a bruising, gloves-off campaign.

“His whole life, when Joe Biden has been knocked down, he stands back up,” Bates, the White House spokesperson, said in a statement.

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who hosted Biden at a fundraiser Tuesday, said he didn’t appear like a candidate deterred.

“He seemed strong. He didn’t seem meek or cowed. He didn’t seem like a broken man. He didn’t seem like somebody in crisis,” Beyer said. “Just very confident and very much like, ‘I’m going to win this thing.’”

NBC News has reported that Hunter Biden intensely wants his father to stay in the race. And Jill Biden has been adamant that he wouldn’t give up.

Gathered with Biden family members at Camp David, Maryland, last weekend, she pointed to all they have endured since Biden decided to run for the White House — including attacks on Hunter Biden and criminal investigations into their son that have publicly exposed some of the family’s darkest and most painful moments — to make the point that now was the time to fight, two people familiar with the conversations said. Our son could go to jail because of this, she has said, referring to Hunter Biden’s recent conviction on felony gun charges.

While Jill Biden was campaigning for her husband Tuesday in Pennsylvania with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., said Biden’s debate performance didn’t come up. Barragan told NBC News that Jill Biden was “upbeat, always smiling and engaged with us.”

“I couldn’t see anything that would tell me that something was happening and something else was going on,” she said.

Immediately after the debate, Biden family members sought to figure out what happened during his debate preparations with senior staff members at Camp David, according to people familiar with the discussions. They wanted to know who was responsible for apparently loading Biden up with numbers and statistics rather than coaching him to speak from his heart, these people said.

They have specifically questioned the decision to have Bauer play Trump in mock debate sessions when there were outside suggestions for someone else to take on the role, which Biden’s top aides rejected. A person close to Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff who led his debate preparations, said Klain asked Bauer to play Trump as he had during 2020 mock debate sessions.

Now, the family conversations are focused on how to rebuild Biden’s standing and continue his campaign, while his closest aides are helming a sweeping outreach effort to keep key Democrats from breaking with him.

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