After a disastrous debate, Biden resists calls to drop out of the race. To understand what's happening, read this guide.

What Democrats are saying about the president's viability as a candidate — and who could replace him on the 2024 ticket.

Former President Donald Trump and President Biden participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 election at CNN's studios in Atlanta last Thursday.
Former President Donald Trump and President Biden participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 election at CNN's studios in Atlanta last Thursday. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden’s halting performance during last week’s presidential debate against former President Donald Trump stoked panic among Democrats, who sought to do damage control while privately discussing his viability as a candidate — and whether he should drop out of the race.

Political observers were more unequivocal, with many prominent publications declaring that it was time for Biden to step aside as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

To Serve His Country, President Biden Should Leave the Race,” blared the headline from the New York Times editorial board Friday.

“The clearest path for Democrats to defeat a candidate defined by his lies is to deal truthfully with the American public: acknowledge that Mr. Biden can’t continue his race, and create a process to select someone more capable to stand in his place to defeat Mr. Trump in November,” the N.Y. Times board said. “It is the best chance to protect the soul of the nation — the cause that drew Mr. Biden to run for the presidency in 2019 — from the malign warping of Mr. Trump. And it is the best service that Mr. Biden can provide to a country that he has nobly served for so long.”

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk off the stage following the debate in Atlanta.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk off the stage following last Thursday's debate in Atlanta. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Times editorial was one of many calling on the 81-year-old incumbent to step aside.

Joe Biden says he ran for president in 2020 because of Charlottesville. He says he ran because he saw the threat Donald Trump posed to the country and the threat he posed to democracy. If Biden truly believes that, he needs to end his reelection campaign. Indeed, dropping out could be the most patriotic gesture of his long career in public service, and every senior Democratic official and leader in the country should be pressuring him to act immediately.

Biden has rightly asserted that the voters regard this election not only as a debate about global affairs, the environment, civil rights, women’s rights, and other matters of policy but as a referendum on democracy itself. For him to remain the Democratic candidate, the central actor in that referendum, would be an act not only of self-delusion but of national endangerment.

A comatose Joe Biden would make a better president than Donald Trump. And the president’s capacity to lead the executive branch is, by most accounts, far greater than his capacity to speak in coherent, extemporaneous sentences on CNN. But the idea that Joe Biden is the best possible standard-bearer for the Democratic Party this November has lost all plausibility.

Former President Donald Trump gestures during the debate in Atlanta
Former President Donald Trump gestures during last Thursday's debate in Atlanta. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Others, though, made the case for him staying in:

If the point of this election is to defeat Trump—and I imagine for many Democrats it is—then you have to do some dirty calculations and realize that you don’t have a Plan B because all the backups aren’t ready yet, and because introducing one of them in the middle of the game is a risky gamble, at best.

Lost in the [postdebate] hand wringing was Donald Trump’s usual bombastic litany of lies, hyperbole, bigotry, ignorance, and fear mongering. His performance demonstrated once again that he is a danger to democracy and unfit for office. In fact, the debate about the debate is misplaced. The only person who should withdraw from the race is Trump.

A few said the calls for Biden to drop out is actually the sign of a “healthy” party, and that choosing a new ticket at the Democratic National Convention next month could energize it.

The Democratic freak-out over Joe Biden is a sign of a healthy political party. Individual leaders—no matter how effective, decent, or well-intentioned—are not sacred cows, to be valued above the national interest.

Politically, I am more optimistic about an open convention than some. It would carry risk but also possibility — the possibility of a ticket that re-energizes the Democratic Party, that excites voters who currently feel they have no good choices. But it could go badly, too, just as Biden’s campaign is going badly now. And so what tips me is not really the politics. It’s that I don’t actually believe Biden should be president for another four years. I don’t believe he would be better than the alternatives.

Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as she arrives for a speech in Las Vegas Friday.
Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as she arrives for a speech in Las Vegas Friday. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Several names have been floated as potential replacements should Biden bow out:

  • Vice President Kamala Harris

  • Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

  • Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom

  • Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker

  • Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear

  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

  • Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey

Harris, in particular, is seen by many pundits to be the most viable alternative.

“The obvious, logical path out of the mess President Biden created with his disastrous debate performance is for him to bow out with honor and endorse his young, vigorous and talented vice president to stand in his stead,” Lydia Polgreen wrote in yet another Times op-ed.

But in an interview on CNN moments after the debate, Harris defended her boss.

"What we saw tonight is the president making a very clear contrast with Donald Trump on all of the issues that matter to the American people," Harris said. "Yes, there was a slow start, but it was a strong finish."

"People can debate on style points,” she added, “but ultimately, this election and who is the president of the United States has to be about substance."

President Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh Friday.
President Biden speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C., Friday. (Matt Kelley/AP)

At a postdebate rally in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday afternoon, a defiant Biden vowed to remain in the race.

"I know I'm not a young man," Biden said. "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: 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,” he added. “And I know, like millions of Americans know, when you get knocked down, you get back."

At a fundraiser in Red Bank, N.J., the president acknowledged the panic among Democrats.

“I understand the concern after the debate. I get it,” Biden said. “I didn’t have a great night, but I’m going to be fighting harder.”

In weekend television appearances, some of Biden’s closest allies in Congress sought to quell the panic surrounding his campaign:

  • "I do not believe that Joe Biden has a problem leading for the next four years, because he's done a great job of leading for the last three-and-a-half years," Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said on CNN’s State of the Union.

  • “The stakes of this race couldn’t be higher, and the only Democrat who’s ever beaten Donald Trump is Joe Biden," Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “He is our candidate for November. And he has the best shot to beat him.”

  • “It certainly was a setback," House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said on MSNBC. "But I believe a setback is nothing more than a setup for a comeback. And the reality is Joe Biden has confronted and had to come back from tragedy, from trials, from tribulations throughout his entire life.”

  • “It’s not about performance in terms of a debate; it’s about performance in a presidency," former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on State of the Union. “It was a bad night. Let’s not sugarcoat that. It was a bad night. It was a great presidency."

NBC News reported on Saturday that Pelosi is among several top Democrats who've privately expressed concern about Biden's "viability."

There were, however, a few Democratic lawmakers who expressed it publicly.

“There was a big problem with Joe Biden’s debate performance,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said on MSNBC. “There are very honest and serious and rigorous conversations taking place at every level of our party.

“We’re having a serious conversation about what to do. One thing I can tell you is that regardless of what President Biden decides, our party is going to be unified,” Raskin added. “Whether he’s the candidate or someone else is the candidate, he is going to be the keynote speaker at our convention. He will be the figure that we rally around to move forward.”

➕ What to read next

President Biden looks down as he participates in the debate in Atlanta.
Biden looks down during last Thursday's debate in Atlanta. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Could Democrats replace Biden at the top of the presidential ticket? "The short answer is yes — assuming Biden decides on his own to step aside. But if Biden decides not to step aside, the short answer is probably no." [NYT]

  • Inside the Biden camp’s postdebate frenzy. "The 48 hours after the debate were a frenzied campaign within a campaign to save Biden’s suddenly teetering candidacy, a multiday damage-control effort to pressure and plead with anxious Democratic lawmakers, surrogates, activists and donors to stand by the president, the party’s presumptive nominee." [NYT]

  • What about the TikTok voters? “Biden was struggling with Gen Z voters, many of whom get news from TikTok, even before the debate ... [And] if Biden had hoped hoping TikTok would react better than panicking Democrats to the debate, he's going to be disappointed.” [Insider]

  • The Biden campaign's reset after his disastrous debate looks a lot like business as usual: "The president's schedule this week includes a briefing on extreme weather, a campaign reception, a Medal of Honor ceremony and the traditional July 4th White House barbecue. Then he's off for a weekend at his home in Wilmington, Delaware." [AP]

  • But his campaign is reportedly weighing a town hall. “Biden may increase his direct engagement with voters and journalists in upcoming weeks, hoping to reassure Democrats rattled by his dismal debate performance last week, according to two people involved in the planning. The events could include a mix of a town hall with voters, one-on-one national interviews with prominent Washington journalists or a solo press conference where Biden would field multiple questions." [Reuters]