Politics / July 6, 2024

Biden Did Not Save His Presidency on ABC

An uneven interview with George Stephanapoulos was too little, too late—and maybe a bit too churlish.

Joan Walsh

President Joe Biden speaks with George Stephanopoulos on July 5, 2024, in Madison, Wisconsin. The president sat down with Stephanopoulos while on the campaign trail, a few days after a debate with former president Donald Trump.

(ABC via Getty Images)

I tried not to see meaning that an episode of Jeopardy! came on before President Joe Biden’s half-hour interview Friday night with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and that it was followed by Wheel of Fortune.

Whatever. Biden was in jeopardy, and there was no way for him to win this wheel of fortune. He’s been trying, and failing, to clean up the mess ever since after he blew his debate with convicted felon Donald Trump nine days ago. On Thursday he’d made some minor flubs with sympathetic Black radio interviewers telling one that he was proud to have been “the first Black woman to serve with a Black president.”

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You know what he meant: He served as vice president to the first Black president, Barack Obama, and he picked as his partner the first Black, South Asian, female vice president, Kamala Harris. But he has delivered that line many times, more clearly, and with more elan.

Stephanopoulos, you’ll recall, was a Bill Clinton operative 30-some years ago. He’s mostly proven himself a fair and nonpartisan journalist, but of course some on the right thought he’d go easy. He was probably one of the friendliest mainstream interlocutors Biden could have picked.

And yet, it didn’t go very well for Biden. It wasn’t awful, like most of last week’s debate. But it wasn’t good, which Biden needed it to be. Stephanopoulous could have perhaps made it better. He never established any kind of rapport with Biden, which I think is one hallmark of a good interview, even if it goes bad. But his approach was defensible, especially given that he had only 30 minutes.

Stephanopoulous started with the facts. “You’ve said you had a bad night,” Stephanopolous began. “Was this a bad episode, or a sign of a more serious condition?” (That is essentially how Nancy Pelosi has framed the question, for what it’s worth.)

“It was a bad episode. No indication of a serious condition,” Biden insisted, as he has before.

Stephanopolous persisted: “You know, you say you were exhausted [by two trips to Europe]. But you came home from Europe about 11 or 12 days before the debate, spent six days in Camp David. Why wasn’t that enough rest time, enough recovery time?”

“Because I was sick,” Biden answered. He took a Covid test. “I just had a really bad cold.”

Stephanopolous asked: “Did you watch the debate afterwards?”

“I don’t think I did, no,” Biden answered. (He doesn’t think he did?)

“Did you know how badly it was going?… It seemed like you were having trouble from the first question in…”

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“No, I just had a bad night…. You’ve had some bad interviews once in a while…”

That’s how it went. There was essentially nothing else. It was tedious.

Stephanopoulous sometimes came at Biden a bit harder. He quoted The New York Times saying, “Biden’s lapses are said to be increasingly common and worrisome.”

“I was also the guy that expanded NATO. I was also the guy that grew the economy.…. I took on Big Pharma. I beat them,” Biden replied. (He took them on; he hasn’t quite beaten them, but he’s got them on their heels. Which is why he, or his vice president, deserves another term.)

“And if Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries and Nancy Pelosi come down and say, ‘We’re worried that if you stay in the race, we’re gonna lose the House and the Senate,’ how will you respond?” “They all said I should stay in the race,” Biden retorted. (That’s not precisely true.)

“You haven’t seen the reports of discontent in the Democratic Party, House Democrats, Senate Democrats?” the host went on. “They love you, and they will be forever grateful to you for defeating Donald Trump in 2020.” But “they don’t think you can win. They want you to go with grace…”

Biden continued his protest. And maybe he’s right.

But I thought it might be classy to mention Vice President Harris, who would succeed him, even if he continues on, in case of any emergency. A lot of the freakout over replacing Biden has come down to people’s discomfort with a Black, South Indian woman they don’t think can win, if she had to run this year, as his replacement.

Yet Harris has grown into a new role, post the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision striking down abortion rights, but also post… just people getting out of her way. (I have a major profile of her coming soon.) She’s Biden’s insurance policy, should his… condition? debate night jitters?… worsen.

So I thought it was odd that Biden didn’t even mention his VP. But then again, he didn’t seem at all on his game.

“And if you stay in and Trump is elected, and everything you’re warning about comes to pass, how will you feel in January?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden.

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

No, Mr. President, that’s how you get a fourth-grade participation trophy.

If Trump wins, you will go down in history as the worst sort of loser: a vain denialist, who couldn’t read polling numbers and couldn’t hear his trusted extended circle and only listened to the encrusted folks who’ve been with him almost 50 years.

I’m very sad. I voted for him, and I will again if that’s my choice. He’s been the best president of my lifetime. But he doesn’t seem to understand what he’s up against. Nothing about this interview helped.

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Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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