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Opinion | The Democratic Party Must Speak the Plain Truth to the President

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For voters who held out hope that President Biden’s failure to communicate during last month’s debate was an aberration, the intervening days have offered little comfort.

Donald Trump’s candidacy for a second term poses a grave threat to American democracy. Mr. Biden, instead of campaigning vigorously to disprove doubts and demonstrate that he can beat Mr. Trump, has maintained a scripted and controlled schedule of public appearances. He has largely avoided taking questions from voters or journalists — the kinds of interactions that reveal his limitations and caused him so much trouble on the debate stage. And when he has cast aside his teleprompter, most notably during a 22-minute interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday, he has continued to appear as a man in decline.

The president, elected in 2020 as an antidote to Mr. Trump’s malfeasance and mendacity, is now trying to defy reality. For more than a year, voters have made it unquestionably clear in surveys and interviews that they harbor significant doubts about Mr. Biden’s physical and mental fitness for office. Mr. Biden has disregarded the concerns of those voters — his fellow citizens — and put the country at significant risk by continuing to insist that he is the best Democrat to defeat Mr. Trump.

Since his feeble debate performance, multiple polls have shown that both Mr. Biden’s approval rating and his chance of beating Mr. Trump have markedly dropped from their already shaky levels. In response, he has adopted a favorite theme of the floundering politician, insisting that the polls are wrong in showing that his presidency is historically unpopular. Even if the polls were off by historic amounts, they would still show overwhelming skepticism about his fitness. The latest Times/Siena poll showed that 74 percent of voters think that Mr. Biden is too old to serve, an increase of five percentage points since the debate and not a figure that can be attributed to some kind of error or bias.

He has denied that age is diminishing his abilities, not even bringing up the subject in a lengthy letter to congressional Democrats issued on Monday. In that letter, he insisted that he is the candidate best equipped to defeat Mr. Trump in November — thereby dismissing the potential candidacy of Vice President Kamala Harris or any other younger, more vigorous Democrat, and in effect asking the American people to trust him instead of their own lying eyes.

It’s not enough to blame the press, the donors, the pundits or the other elite groups for trying to push him out, as he did in the letter. In fact, to use his own words, “the voters — and the voters alone — decide the nominee of the Democratic Party.” But Democratic leaders shouldn’t rely solely on the judgment of the few voters who turned out in this year’s coronation primaries. They should listen instead to the much larger group of voters who have been telling every pollster in America their concerns for a long time. Mr. Biden has to pay attention to the will of the broader electorate that will determine the outcome in November.

At times, Mr. Biden has seemed to hover on the verge of self-awareness, as when he reportedly told Democratic governors last week that he needs to sleep more, work less and avoid public events after 8 p.m. But he has resisted the obvious conclusion that a man who needs to clock out at 8 should not attempt to perform simultaneously two of the world’s most difficult and all-consuming jobs — serving as president and running for president.

From the grass roots to the highest levels of the party, Democrats who want to defeat Mr. Trump in November should speak plainly to Mr. Biden. They need to tell him that his defiance threatens to hand victory to Mr. Trump. They need to tell him that he is embarrassing himself and endangering his legacy. He needs to hear, plain and clear, that he is no longer an effective spokesman for his own priorities.

The party needs a candidate who can stand up to Mr. Trump. It needs a nominee who can present Americans with a compelling alternative to Mr. Trump’s bleak vision for America.

Elected Democratic leaders have personal experience of Mr. Biden’s decline. Representative Don Beyer of Virginia reportedly told colleagues on Sunday that the president “really has trouble putting two sentences together” — an account reminiscent of the special counsel Robert Hur’s description of Mr. Biden early this year as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

But since the debate, most elected Democrats have resisted taking a public stand, instead waiting quietly and hopefully for Mr. Biden to arrive at the necessary conclusion. Mr. Beyer’s office issued a statement after his comments were reported insisting that he still supports Mr. Biden. Others have voiced concerns without their names attached, perhaps hoping their anxiety would trickle back to the president.

But a whisper campaign is inadequate to this moment, because the moment is urgent. The longer Mr. Biden continues his grasp on the nomination, the harder it will be to replace him, as he certainly knows. The country has already seen what happens to a party that binds itself to the ambitions of one individual, and it did not turn out well for Republicans, who have lost their way.

For those at the helm of the Democratic Party — including the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer; the House minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries; and even the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi — the time has arrived to speak forcefully to the president and the public about the need for a new candidate, before time runs out for other candidates to make their case to the party’s convention delegates.

These Democratic leaders know that the presidency is not a day job, and Mr. Biden needs to hear from them and others that the security of and stakes for America are too high to continue to move forward with Mr. Biden as the nominee.

If their reticence up to now was partly a show of respect and partly a calculation that Mr. Biden would be more receptive to private counsel than to public criticism, it is increasingly clear that the president is unwilling to accept the reality of his situation. He is engaging in a staring contest with Democratic leaders, and he appears to be winning. The only way to persuade Mr. Biden to accept the need for new leadership is to demonstrate that the party is no longer following him.

Mr. Biden and his defenders say that voters should focus on his accomplishments during his three and a half years as president. It is an impressive record. But the classic Wall Street warning applies to politicians, too: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The question confronting voters is not whether Mr. Biden has been an effective president, but whether he can beat Mr. Trump in November and govern effectively thereafter.

Mr. Biden also argued in his Monday letter that the focus on his own abilities was distracting Democrats from the work of defeating Mr. Trump. But it is precisely because of the importance of defeating Mr. Trump that Americans are preoccupied with Mr. Biden’s decline.

Mr. Trump was the worst president in modern American history. He is a felon convicted of breaking the law as part of his campaign to win the 2016 election. Four years later, after his multiple attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election failed, he incited an attack on Congress aimed to keep himself in power. During the current campaign, he has promised an even more unrestrained version of himself if re-elected, even refusing to disavow violence on his behalf.

If elected, he has promised to turn the federal bureaucracy and even the Justice Department into weapons of his will to hurt his perceived political enemies. (With the aid of the three justices he appointed, the Supreme Court just made it possible for him to break the law in doing so with no fear of criminal prosecution.) And he has made clear that he will surround himself with people who support his plans. He will work to further restrict the reproductive rights of women. He will roll back environmental rules, allowing companies to pollute the water and the air. His belligerent, erratic, go-it-alone approach to foreign policy will undermine the nation’s interests and its security, encouraging Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians around the globe.

By departing the race, Mr. Biden can focus public attention on Mr. Trump’s capacity to perform the job of president. Mr. Trump, of course, should also withdraw from this race, not least because of his own cognitive deficiencies and incessant lying. He, too, is not the man he was four years ago. He also makes fewer public appearances and refuses to answer questions about his health. His habitual mendacity now frequently wanders into nonsensical incoherence. He would be the oldest person ever to be inaugurated as president — older than Mr. Biden was in 2021.

Mr. Trump is manifestly unfit to serve as president, and there is reason to believe a majority of the American people still can be rallied against his candidacy. But Democrats will struggle to press that case with voters so long as their own standard-bearer is a man who also appears unfit to serve as president for the next four years, albeit for very different reasons.

The 2024 presidential election is not a contest between two men, or even between two political parties. It is a battle for who we are as a nation.

President Biden clearly understands the stakes. But he seems to have lost track of his own role in this national drama. As the situation has become more dire, he has come to regard himself as indispensable. He does not seem to understand that he is now the problem — and that the best hope for Democrats to retain the White House is for him to step aside.

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