Biden tries to turn the page on a shaky debate: From the Politics Desk

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, senior political editor Mark Murray looks at how Democrats’ efforts to downplay concerns about Joe Biden’s age have come back to bite them. Plus, we break down all the fallout from Thursday’s debate and another day of major Supreme Court decisions.

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Biden’s allies spent a year dismissing concerns about his age. That was a mistake.

By Mark Murray

After Thursday’s debate, there’s a separate storyline to consider beyond President Joe Biden’s shaky performance and former President Donald Trump’s lies and misleading statements.

That storyline: the yearlong Democratic campaign to discredit concerns about Biden’s age, his fitness and his ability to defeat Trump in a non-Covid presidential campaign — especially with polls showing a super-majority of voters having worries about Biden’s age.

Biden’s allies and liberal commentators sneered at Rep. Dean Phillips’ plea last summer for someone, anyone, to challenge Biden in the primaries to prove he’s up to the task in a race against Trump. (That someone eventually turned out to be Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat, himself.)

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“He’s essentially torpedoing his career completely and destroying any goodwill he has within the Democratic Party,” one House Democrat told NBC News about Phillips’ challenge to Biden.

They attacked special counsel Robert Hur after his report this year referred to Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

“Cheap shot” and “playing politics” was how Biden’s allies reacted to Hur.

They ridiculed news organizations (like The Wall Street Journal) and prominent commentators (like Ezra Klein and David Ignatius) who raised doubts about Biden’s fitness in recent months.

And they launched a campaign against “cheap fake” videos that portrayed Biden’s age, mannerisms and gait in the public eye — sometimes misleadingly, sometimes not.

But after last night’s debate, who was more right than wrong — the ones raising the concerns about Biden, or those who were dismissing and discrediting them?

That question is important to ask, now that Democrats are in a full-blown panic about Biden as their presidential option after last night’s debate.

The White House, the Democratic Party and their allies spent an entire year dismissing concerns about Biden’s age and fitness. And now there are less than two months until the party will officially select its presidential nominee.

Biden tries to bounce back: ‘I don’t debate as well as I used to’

Biden sought to turn his disappointing debate performance into a rallying cry for his supporters at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, painting himself as down, but not out, as some in his party whisper about replacing him atop the ticket.

“I know I’m not a young man. I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to, but I know what I do know — I know how to tell the truth!” an energetic Biden said, nodding at the criticism he received following the debate while contrasting it with assessments about the accuracy of several of Trump’s statements.

“When you get knocked down, you get back up,” Biden yelled, to a cheering crowd.

How Democrats are reacting: Privately, many Democrats — including some lawmakers — said that they are worried about Biden’s election chances. But publicly, they’re putting on a brave face and downplaying the impact of a single debate.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats acknowledged Biden performed poorly Thursday night, but didn’t agree with those who called on him to drop out of the presidential race.

“I thought he had a poor performance,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the former House majority whip and an influential figure within the party who is credited with being a crucial part of Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But, he said it’s a long road to the November election and “one debate does not a campaign make.”

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: “He got off to a bad start. I thought he came through OK on the issues later.”

Democrats running key Senate and House races this fall largely stayed quiet or dodged questions about Biden’s debate performance.

But perhaps most critically, Biden received backup from his former boss. “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” former President Barack Obama posted on X. “But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself.”

How Trump is reacting: Trump mocked Biden during a rally in Virginia on Friday, saying the president “didn’t know what the hell he was doing.”

“It’s not his age, it’s his competence,” Trump said. “He’s not respected anywhere in the world.”

Stay up to date on the latest debate reactions and 2024 election news with our live blog →

A big day at the Supreme Court — with another to come Monday

Outside of all the fallout from the debate, Friday also featured a series of major Supreme Court decisions.

1. The court ruled in favor of a former police officer who is seeking to throw out an obstruction charge for joining the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. The 6-3 vote on nonideological lines handed a win to defendant Joseph Fischer, who is among hundreds of Jan. 6 defendants — including Trump — who have been charged with obstructing an official proceeding over the effort to prevent Congress’ certification of Biden’s election victory.

2. The court also overturned a 40-year-old precedent that has been a target of the right because it is seen as bolstering the power of “deep state” bureaucrats, dealing a blow to federal agencies. In a ruling involving a challenge to a fisheries regulation, the court consigned to history a 1984 ruling called Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. That decision had said judges should defer to federal agencies in interpreting the law when the language of a statute is ambiguous, thereby giving regulatory flexibility to bureaucrats.

3. And the court rejected a constitutional challenge to ordinances enacted by a small city in Oregon that punish homeless people for sleeping on public property when they have nowhere else to go.

4. Aside from the opinions the justice issued Friday morning, the high court rejected a last-minute bid from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to stave off his four-month prison sentence for defying subpoenas from the House Jan. 6 committee. Bannon must report to prison by Monday.

This all sets the stage for the Supreme Court’s highest-profile ruling of the term on Monday: whether Trump has sweeping presidential immunity that would shield him from prosecution for trying to overturn the 2020 election.

That’s all from the Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at

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