Joe Biden bombed during the debate. But who will ask him to step down?

In March 1968, president Lyndon Johnson abandoned his reelection bid, citing the “awesome duties of this office”, partisan divisions in the country, and “America’s sons in the fields far away” in Vietnam. “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president,” Johnson said.

It was a remarkable moment, recalls veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf: “No one gives up being the most powerful person in the world,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”

But LBJ was an exception, Sheinkopf says, in part because of his wife. Lady Bird Johnson “was not wild about the idea of becoming a political spouse”, biographer Julia Sweig wrote.

On Friday, as the White House mounted a push back against calls for Joe Biden to abandon his re-election bid to allow another Democrat to step in, there is a dawning reality that despite Biden’s catastrophic debate performance the night before, the decision to step aside or remain and potentially go on to a catastrophic defeat is his to make, and his alone.

And without any formal mechanism for Democrats to force Biden to step aside, the job of convincing him to do so would likely fall to Biden’s closest adviser: the First Lady.

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Jill Biden has reacted forcefully in the past against calls on her to persuade her husband to step down, including to taunts that she is “guilty of elder abuse”, and is said to enjoy the trappings of White House prestige. In Atlanta on Thursday, she led her husband off the stage and was heard to tell him: “Joe, you did such a great job! You answered every question, you knew all the facts!”

Others in Biden’s inner circle who may have the ear of the president include Biden’s younger sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has played a key role throughout the president’s political career; campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez; campaign chairwoman Jen O’Malley Dillon; campaign senior adviser Anita Dunn; and advisor Ron Klain.

Alongside them are senior Democrats, some of whom fear that the weakness in Biden’s re-election chances will drag down Democrat hopes to retain control of the Senate and retake Congress.

Party heavyweights Bill Clinton and wife Hillary, who voiced her support for Biden on Friday, are key Biden backers who have his ear, as are former house speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, the South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, who helped to turn around Biden’s campaign in 2019, and Delaware senator Chris Coons.

But ultimately, it may be big Democrat donors whose pressure makes the biggest difference. The aging political leadership in US politics is ultimately a reflection of the elders’ proven ability to fundraise – but that ability on Biden’s part may now be threatened. One Democratic fundraiser who planned to attend a debate performance in the Hamptons on Saturday evening called Biden’s performance “a disaster”, CNBC reported, and called Biden’s performance “worse than I thought was possible”.

“Everyone I’m speaking with thinks Biden should drop out,” the network quoted the person as saying. Another said simply: “Game over.”

According to Sheinkopf, Democrats are in uncharted waters. “It’s a terrible position to be in, but on the other side you have Donald Trump, who many people do not like, more they detest him, but he has a loyal following. He may not have acquitted himself as a liar last night but he appeared strong and not in any way weak.

“The only way Biden can leave is to leave himself, and he can’t leave unless there’s a replacement Democrats can agree on.”

But any agreement is far off, except perhaps one: “Democrats will do everything they can not to have Kamala Harris because her polling numbers are atrocious and she is not trusted to be commander-in-chief at a time conflict is breaking out throughout the world.”

The unenviable job of breaking the news to the US president falls now to one person, Sheinkopf said: “The most logical person to suggest to Biden he not do this for his health and for the good of the country is Jill Biden.”

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