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How Biden Can Recover From Disastrous Presidential Debate

Coming off what was widely regarded as a disastrous debate performance, President Joe Biden, 81, faces a growing chorus of calls for him to step aside. Biden typically recoils from any criticism related to his age, but the urgent crisis he faces has become too pressing for him to ignore. However, all is not lost yet for Biden. The path forward is not easy, but there is still time for him to clear the air, with convincing explanations building off his track record of turning failures into demonstrated resilience.

Here are the three possible pathways for how Biden can move forward from his catastrophic debate performance and salvage his standing.

Biden could operate as though it’s business as usual

Unfortunately, this seems to have become the default option for many leading Democratic apparatchiks ranging from Gavin Newsom and John Fetterman to Kamala Harris. It was sad to see credible people taking an incredible position and backing Biden directly after that debate on Thursday. Newsom ludicrously claimed, “I am very proud of the President,” while Fetterman ripped Biden critics as “vultures” and advised them to “chill the f-ck out.”

Many Democrats likely fear incurring the wrath of Biden, who is notoriously prickly about his age. And sure, these Biden supporters can point out that the debate was only one night and that Biden’s three-and-a-half years of accomplishments should matter more—but the American people cannot and will not simply write off such a historically bad debate performance. 

The Trumpian denial of reality among these “business as usual” types leans towards political malpractice. In defaulting to what they view as the safest answers, these Dems are actually doing a massive disservice to their own cause and risk destroying their own credibility. 

Biden could head out on the road and prove his fitness to govern in front of voters across America

Instead of avoiding the issue, or hiding behind layers of overly protective staff in the White House, Biden can tackle it head-on with a proactive, forceful demonstration of his own fitness to govern. While speculation swirls about whether Biden should step down, there is no better way for Biden to silence the critics than to show beyond a shadow of doubt that he remains on top of his game and that the debate catastrophe was a one-time aberration, not the norm. But time is of the essence here.

Painful as it may be, Biden should own up to a poor debate and candidly admit why that was. Putting aside his age, what caused this? Was he having a bad reaction to cold medication? Did an overanxious debate prep team overcoach him? Was he overwhelmed with obscure facts and figures instead of being encouraged to be himself?

Already, Biden appears to be confronting matters head-on. At a rally in North Carolina on Friday, Biden addressed his poor debate performance as well as the issue of his age with more self-awareness than ever before.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious… I know. Folks, I know 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,” the President said to a cheering crowd. “I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. I know how to do this job. I know how to get things done. I know that when you get knocked down, you get back up.”

But to restore his credibility in the eyes of the public, Biden has to do not just staged pep rallies with friendly reverential audiences, but engage urgently in genuine unscripted, responsive exchanges with independent media and outside key opinion leaders. 

Biden sat down with TIME for a cover story published in early June, but it’s rare to get such direct access to this particular President. It’s long been a topic of discussion how Biden gives less media interviews than his predecessors. This isolation has never served Biden well; but now, it is especially vital that he reach out to key donors, political allies, and other influencers across civil society to re-establish his standing and to re-engage journalists.

Biden has every opportunity now to fortify his credibility in the eyes of the American public, and there should be no premature rush to judgment—a point made by varied voices ranging from former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to lifelong Republican Mark Cuban. Already, key Democratic Party heavyweights such as former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have come out with statements of support meant to help tide Biden over for the time being—but the ultimate judge will be the American people. And there are signs the people will be far less judgmental than the media commentator class, with Biden surprisingly up 1% after the debate.

Biden could make the change many are calling for 

The Biden many Americans saw during the debate is not the Biden I [Sonnenfeld] have known for five decades. In fact, I spoke briefly with the President last month at a Greenwich fundraiser, and I had no inkling that anything was off in the slightest. Having known Biden for so long, and having admired his great presidency, it pains me to say this but after the debate disaster, the onus is on Biden now to prove his fitness to govern in the eyes of the public. If he fails at this, he should step aside before the choice is made for him by the American people at the ballot box in November, as many prominent voices ranging from the New York Times Editorial Board to AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron have called for.

Despite the anxious clamoring of top donors, operatives and others, the path to replacing Biden on the ballot is fraught with difficulties. First, and most obviously, there is no evidence Biden is eager to step aside, no matter what anyone else says about him. 

For Biden to even remotely consider stepping down voluntarily, it could very well fall to such senior party leaders as the Clintons, Obama, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Jim Clyburn, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries to try to convince him. And even then, it seems highly unlikely.

Even if Biden did voluntarily step aside, and release his pledged delegates for an open convention; the nomination process in such a rushed contest may prove to be so divisive that the party could be worse off. It’s also worth pointing out there is no clear frontrunner, with Vice President Kamala Harris trailing Trump in polls far worse than Biden.

While rising stars such as Jeffries or Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer look like appealing choices, and could be a unifying dream team, they come with their own drawbacks too, and it would be unprecedented for a novice presidential candidate to build out a fully-fledged campaign infrastructure this late in the game. But these obstacles may prove to be the lesser-of-evils choice if Biden cannot prove once and for all that he is still fit to be President.

Biden should be given every opportunity now to rebound from the debate and show he is fit to govern. Should he fail to do so, only then will it be time for him to step aside.