For Joe Biden, A Career Defined By Proving The Doubters Wrong Faces Its Biggest Test

President Joe Biden seen in Madison, Wisconsin, on July 5 has made defending democracy a cornerstone of his Oval Office tenure and framed his 2020 campaign against Donald Trump as a “battle for the soul of the nation,” was asked how he’d feel if he lost to the former president this fall. (Scott Olson/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Phil Mattingly, CNN

(CNN) — Joe Biden is betting on himself.

In the president’s telling, the pundits have always doubted him. The Washington class has always scoffed at his approach. He was never the darling of Democratic donors. The polls that show moribund approval ratings and widespread unease with his age don’t capture his true standing.

The defiance Biden has thrust into public view at the start of a critical week is a feature, not a bug.

“I’m getting frustrated by the elites in the party, ‘Oh, they know so much more,’” he said in a surprise call-in interview Monday on MSNBC. “Any of these guys that don’t think I should run, run against me. Announce for president. Challenge me at the convention.”

Biden’s public comments, which echoed a Monday morning letter to Democratic lawmakers, revealed flashes of what animates the president and his team, now staring down a moment of peak political peril. His closest advisers have long carried a similar boulder-size chip on their shoulders, with ready examples of their boss being doubted, dismissed or derided over the years.

If Biden’s life has been defined by resilience in the face of immense personal tragedy, the consistent element of his hardly linear path to the Oval Office has been a relentless belief that at its core – whether on politics, policy or legislating – his approach will work.

Biden’s dug-in stance in the wake of the first presidential debate is not too surprising to those who know him well.

But it’s also led to frustration among Democrats – including some long-time supporters of Biden – who worry that the approach could create a blind spot at a moment when the stakes could not be higher.

Biden only served to exacerbate that frustration after his primetime ABC News interview last week, his first major effort to clean up his shaky debate performance.

The president, who has made defending democracy a cornerstone of his Oval Office tenure and framed his 2020 campaign against Donald Trump as a “battle for the soul of the nation,” was asked how he’d feel if he lost to the former president this fall.

“I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all, and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about,” Biden said.

The answer stunned many Democrats who view Trump as an existential threat to the country and was particularly jarring coming from someone who has made that threat so central to his campaigns and presidency.

Biden has since repeatedly moved to underscore his view of the threat he says Trump poses – and his belief that losing is not an option.

But the answer compounded what some Democrats say is the biggest problem with Biden’s dismissal of their concerns about his ability to run and win a second term: reality.

“We all watched the debate,” a House Democrat who supports Biden told CNN. “This isn’t about questioning campaign mechanics or legislative strategy – this is a lot heavier than that.”

A candidacy at risk

As Democrats grapple with Biden’s immediate future in Washington, the campaign ahead looms large.

Biden was already trailing Trump in many polls before the debate. The deficits have grown wider since.

A clear party-wide desire to focus on, and elevate, Trump and the clear policy contrasts between the two candidates has been swamped by an issue that has bogged down Biden’s candidacy from the beginning: his age

As of Monday evening, six House Democrats had publicly called on Biden to step aside. A handful of major donors have done the same.

“We’ve got a good message,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN. “The president has shown he is not capable of delivering that message in an effective way.”

Democrats – both supporters and those still on the fence about his candidacy – have urged Biden to take clear steps to mollify the concern.

Biden’s shift to go on offense at the start of such a consequential week marked an important, if somewhat overdue, step in the right direction, said a Biden donor, who participated in a Monday video call with Biden and other top donors. “But I think it’s understandable that people are still shaken by what they saw.”

That group isn’t limited to elected Democrats and donors.

Multiple White House officials acknowledged to CNN they were taken aback by Biden’s debate performance, even as they made a point of noting that their access to him wasn’t exactly expansive.

Gripes about access to the president are hardly exclusive to the current West Wing operation. But the concern was notable in a White House where officials have long taken pride in subscribing to Biden’s “prove the doubters wrong” approach.

But the concerns underscored a level of uncertainty about the long-prevalent “us against the world” posture among his staff.

Quelling the anxieties

Biden has publicly acknowledged the party anxieties in the days since the debate.

“I have heard the concerns that people have – their good-faith fears and worries about what is at stake in this election,” Biden wrote in his letter to congressional Democrats. “I am not blind to them.”

But the acknowledgment has repeatedly been followed by the trait that so often frames his approach to doubters: defiance.

Several Democratic officials and donors who spoke with Biden in the wake of his listless debate performance told CNN there were flashes of that defiance in their calls with the president.

Among the dozens of fundraising emails fired off by the Biden campaign in the week after the debate were subject lines such as “The pundits have gotten everything wrong” and “Pundits and politicians.”

After a weekend of campaign events, Biden made abundantly clear that in his view, it was time to turn the page.

“The question of how to move forward has been well aired for over a week now,” Biden wrote in his letter to House Democrats. “And it’s time for it to end. We have one job. And that is to beat Donald Trump.”

The message, which came at a critical moment of the 2024 campaign, represented equal parts political necessity for the party and political necessity for the candidate.

It was also strategic.

Democratic lawmakers were set to return to Washington after the July 4 holiday and meet behind closed doors, where conversations would center on Biden’s political standing, fitness for a second term and whether they should mount an effort to push for a new nominee.

On Monday, many Democratic senators appeared to have settled on a posture of not weighing in definitively outside of pressing Biden and his team to take a more sustained and aggressive public approach.

Past is prologue

Biden’s explicit call to turn the page also carried with it an unequivocal message to those who questioned his candidacy.

He isn’t going anywhere.

Anyone who questions why that’s his position need only look back over the course of the past decade – or ask Biden’s closest advisers, who are quick to roll off a lengthy list of examples they see as clear evidence of his record of proving the doubters wrong.

As vice president, Biden’s deliberations about a potential 2016 campaign, undertaken in the wake of his son Beau’s death, were met with persistent if cautious resistance from Democrats eager to coalesce behind Hillary Clinton.

That the resistance came in no small part from advisers to President Barack Obama is something neither Biden nor his senior team have ever forgotten, particularly after four years of feeling consistently underestimated by some in Obama’s senior orbit.

“The increasing pushback made everybody a little bit angry, and a lot determined,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir “Promise Me, Dad,” which recounted the process he and his close advisers pursued as they weighed a run.

Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was all but given its last rites before a stunning turnaround in the South Carolina primary that was followed by a relentless march to the Democratic nomination.

Biden’s campaign strategy to largely stay off the campaign trail in the middle of a pandemic faced no shortage of doubters. He ended up defeating Trump by more than 7 million votes.

Several of the cornerstone laws that sit at the center of one of the most consequential legislative records for a president in decades once appeared on the brink of defeat – or defeated altogether. Then final deals came together in time to push through measures such as the bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act.

The 2022 midterm elections were set to wipe out House and Senate Democrats alike as Biden’s middling approval ratings and persistently high inflation weighed down the party’s majorities in Congress.

Biden’s decision to give two major speeches on democracy in the closing weeks was panned by critics and many Democratic lawmakers as missing the real concerns of voters.

And yet when the votes were counted, Democrats had picked up a seat in the Senate and narrowly lost the House – outcomes that bucked historical trends and polls alike.

Exit polling showed that democracy was a top-of-mind issue for voters.

In a way, that experience, when taken together with Trump’s return to dominance atop the Republican Party, may have created inertia for the oldest president in US history as he weighed whether to seek reelection.

Despite the concerns over his age consistently reflected in surveys, Biden’s decision to run and the Democratic nomination process that followed were less the subject of intensive internal debate and more a formality.

Any time Biden was asked about those concerns, he had a two-word retort ready: “Watch me.”

Tens of millions of people did, and the result has been a candidacy on the brink in the minds of many Democrats.

Biden, who carries a core belief in his agenda, his record and his ability to defeat Trump again, is steadfastly not among them.

“The bottom line here is that we’re not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere,” Biden said on MSNBC. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was the best candidate to beat Donald Trump in 2024.”

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