How Biden came around to debating Trump: 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, White House correspondent Mike Memoli reports on how Joe Biden came around to challenging Donald Trump to two debates. Plus, chief political analyst Chuck Todd breaks down which presidential candidate will be a bigger drag on their party this fall.

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How Biden came around to debating Trump

By Mike Memoli

For weeks, former President Donald Trump and his team have been trying to goad President Joe Biden into a debate over debates.

In the end, it just took a simple memo and a couple phone calls to settle the matter quickly, as the two presumptive major party presidential nominees agreed Wednesday to debates in June and September.

The Biden team’s surprise volley to try to settle the matter served two of its primary objectives at this stage of the campaign: to accelerate making the 2024 race into a binary choice, and to seize a rare opportunity to set the agenda in an otherwise Trump-driven national media environment.

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Wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s hush money trial has made it all but impossible for the president’s message to break through of late. But advisers say it has forced them to focus their efforts on making a bigger impact on the rare off days in the New York proceedings.

On Wednesday, with no Trump trial, the debate topic presented a ripe target guaranteed to land the president back in the headlines — and to drive the discussion.

It was Howard Stern of all people who first got Biden to commit publicly to facing off with Trump again, during the president’s visit to his New York studio in late April. It kicked up the conversation internally about how to handle Trump’s repeated push to debate Biden “any time, any place.” There were even informal, back-channel conversations between the Biden and Trump campaigns that laid the groundwork for both sides agreeing to the June 27 and Sept. 10 faceoffs, according to multiple sources involved.

Biden filmed a taunting video challenging Trump to debate in the last several days, according to an adviser. It was posted not just to X, but to Truth Social. Another adviser wouldn’t say whether the campaign had expected the Trump campaign to commit so quickly to its terms, but was still happy to lock in media partners and dates so soon.

Biden’s campaign has long argued that one of its biggest challenges is getting less-engaged voters to recognize that 2024 is, indeed, a rematch with Trump. The former president’s legal fight has only reinforced skepticism among some voters over whether he will still be on the November ballot. But a June 27 debate will present that in stark relief well before early voting begins in some key states this fall — and well before the initial mid-September showdown that had been offered by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The debates will be a critical test for Biden at a time when many voters — including Democrats — are concerned over whether he’s up to the task of dueling with Trump, let alone serving another four years. Biden advisers have long said that the president is a “game day performer” who has always met the moment, pointing to this year’s State of the Union address.

Preparing for a debate in just six weeks could be a challenge, especially as the president is set to travel to Europe twice in the weeks before. But one senior Biden adviser said that “early prep is overrated,” while another said simply: “He’s ready to go.”

Peter Alexander, Monica Alba, Dasha Burns and Allan Smith contributed reporting.

Is Biden or Trump the bigger drag on his party?

By Chuck Todd

Democrats have a Biden problem right now more than a party-brand problem, this week’s New York Times/Siena College polls of key battleground states indicate.

In every state where the new polls tested Biden, there was at least one Democrat performing better. Across the board, Democrats were ahead or tied in every Senate race tested.

There are other potential explanations for this, including the power of incumbency, because three of the battleground Senate races (Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania) feature sitting Democratic senators.

But consider, too, how the Democratic governors are all polling better than Biden in the battleground states. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s job rating was a whopping 19 points better than Biden’s in the Times poll of the state.

Meanwhile, Trump is polling better than every Republican Senate candidate in the battlegrounds. To put it another way, Biden is less popular than the Democratic brand, while Trump is more popular than the Republican brand.

So what’s going on here? Is it that the Democratic candidates in the battleground states are running and governing as moderates? Folks like Shapiro and Sen. Bob Casey, his fellow Pennsylvanian, have spent a lot of money over the years straddling the middle of the ideological spectrum, and those efforts have paid off. Conversely, the GOP has spent a lot of time and effort trying to rebrand Biden as a Democrat who can’t say no to the left, as opposed to a moderate, and it’s an image that’s starting to stick with some voters.

Political campaigns are, as I constantly like to remind folks, binary choices. There’s rarely a perfect candidate to support, so many voters have to make picks based on the options available — though this year, voting third party or skipping the vote for president are also viable “choices.”

So let’s bottom-line this: The Democratic Party has a Biden problem. This has arguably been a concern ever since Biden took the oath of office in 2021. Six months ago, the hand-wringing among Democrats who were concerned about Biden’s viability was over his age — but that was a proxy for a larger issue in his struggles: the perception of weakness.

Can the Biden campaign fix this image issue? Given our short-attention-span information ecosystem, one can always assume there’s time to change perception, but it’s getting difficult.

Read more from Chuck →

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