President Biden Returns To White House

While many Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern about President Joe Biden’s candidacy since his recent debate performance, a sense of acceptance has emerged within the party.

Following pivotal House and Senate meetings on Tuesday, there is a growing consensus that Biden is likely to remain the Democratic nominee despite lingering concerns and internal divisions. Only one additional Democrat called for Biden to step down following these meetings, suggesting a shift in the caucus towards accepting his continued candidacy.

“We have to recognize that the President is the nominee until he says something differently,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and Biden campaign surrogate, tells TIME. “Biden has made a decision to stay in, so we have to do what we can to win [in November].”

Echoes Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive Minnesota Democrat: “I don’t live in a delusional world. The President is going to be our nominee and we will have his back.”

As House lawmakers left a morning meeting at the Democratic National Committee, which was described by several attendees as a “family conversation,” several Democrats publicly—if cautiously—reaffirmed their support for Biden. Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who had privately advocated for Biden to step aside just days ago, emphasized the need for unity moving forward. “He’s going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him,” Nadler told reporters, reflecting a sentiment shared by many within the party’s ranks.

Despite the outward show of solidarity, the meetings highlighted deep-seated divisions within the Democratic Party, particularly in the wake of Biden’s less-than-stellar debate performance. Concerns about Biden’s electability against former President Donald Trump have led to frank discussions among party members, some of whom have openly questioned his ability to lead the party to victory in November. However, following Biden’s vow to remain in the race in a letter to congressional Democrats on Monday, the meetings left members without a clear path forward. “House Democrats are not even in the same book, let alone on the same page,” Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, told reporters. The status quo—for Biden to remain as the nominee—appeared to gain reluctant acceptance, even as some members urged the President to make more public appearances and prove he’s up to the job.

“We need to make sure that our candidate for President can campaign with the vigor that all of [our] candidates have, if not more,” says Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, a Democrat. “I need to be able to see that [Biden] is ready to go out there and campaign day and night vigorously and passionately, certainly in the battleground states and in states all across the country.”

Tuesday’s meetings certainly won’t be the last opportunities for Democrats to discuss the problem. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, told reporters that the caucus meeting was an opportunity for members to express their concerns openly. “Those discussions will continue throughout the week as we work towards a common goal,” Jeffries said, hinting at ongoing efforts to bridge internal divides and rally support behind Biden. 

While a handful of House Democrats have publicly or privately voiced reservations about Biden’s candidacy, influential voices within the party, including the Congressional Black Caucus and prominent Democratic lawmakers including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have reaffirmed their support for Biden.

But despite the prevailing mood of resignation towards Biden’s candidacy, there are still concerns about his age and his recent debate performance —factors that have fueled speculation about his ability to campaign effectively against Trump. On Tuesday evening, Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey called on Biden not to run for re-election, becoming the 7th House Democrat to publicly do so—joining Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Texas, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, Mike Quigley of Illinois, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Angela Craig of Minnesota, and Adam Smith of Washington.

Asked what Biden can do to change his mind, Smith, a ranking Democrat on the armed services committee, told TIME that he would vote for Biden if he winds up as the party’s nominee. But he added, “It would have been helpful in the immediate aftermath of the debate to get a doctor to do a full, transparent health check, release that information publicly, have the President come out and do an hour-long press conference and say, ‘Wild things happen, brain fog hit me, bad time, I’m good.’ I think that would have been helpful, but of course they didn’t do that and several days passed.”

Others believe Biden’s planned press conference on Thursday at the end of the NATO summit will be pivotal. If he gives a strong performance, it “changes the whole scenario once again,” says Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who supports Biden as the nominee. “People want reassurances that it was just one terrible day.”

The clock is ticking for Democrats to make up their minds, with the convention weeks away. “It has to be done fairly quickly,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, of outreach from White House to key stakeholders, including members of Congress and party leaders. 

Some Democrats are still betting their voters would choose Biden over the alternative—no matter what happens this week. “We’ll vote for a head of cabbage and a chihuahua,” Rep. Becca Balint, a Vermont Democrat, says of voters in her state. Asked if she thinks Joe Biden is the best candidate to beat Trump: “I’m not commenting on that. I’m really not.”