All eyes will be on Biden at NATO summit – and the risks of missteps are huge


This coming fortnight has all the ingredients to be historically consequential.

We can expect big announcements on Ukraine from the NATO leaders meeting in Washington. We will discover who Donald Trump’s running mate will be and we will watch President Biden fight for his political life.

The fallout from President Biden‘s disastrous debate performance a little over a week ago continues. On the face of it, he insists he will remain the candidate, but the truth is the coming days seem set to be make or break for him.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you they know what will unfold… but here are a few scenarios.

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Late on Sunday Democratic Party congressional leaders met their rank-and-file members to canvas opinion on whether to double down on candidate Biden or move to call formally for him to step down.

As they coalesce around a decision this week, all eyes will be on the president as he hosts the annual NATO summit in Washington – the biggest event of its kind in three decades.

More on Joe Biden

The leaders of 30 nations will be in the American capital. It’s the perfect stage for the President to prove he’s got what it takes.

But the risks of missteps, underlining a cognitive decline, are huge. Remember the G7 meeting just a few weeks ago. Back then, as videos became memes of a president seemingly not altogether with it, White House staff reacted with dismissive anger. Then came the debate debacle, confirming concerns.

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Biden v Trump: Highlights from the debate

You can be sure every leader will be asked for their view on the performance of the American president.

It seems inconceivable that there will be any overt pressure to force Biden aside before Thursday when the NATO summit ends. Humiliation is not the objective here.

But after the president’s NATO news conference, at which his performance will be his latest test, it’s likely decisions on his future will coalesce. There is some talk here of Friday being a key day.

Yet there is no roadmap for changing horses this late in a race. The American system doesn’t consist of a party structure which can force a leader out. It is Joe Biden’s decision.

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Biden vows to stay in the race

His primetime interview on ABC News last Friday was largely gaffe-free but hardly calmed the Democratic Party panic. He was defiant.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” he told ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos. “But the Lord Almighty is not coming down.”

Beyond the Almighty, the real-world pressure will consist of overwhelming public unease from his party, evidence of further disastrous polling against Trump and, most crucially, a shift in thinking from within his own inner circle – his wife Jill, his sister Valerie, his son Hunter and his closest political advisers.

They are all standing by him and his belief that he is mentally acute and that he alone can beat Donald Trump. Call it hubris, stubbornness, denialism, or conviction – for now it’s holding.

So, what next if the pressure becomes too much or if the Almighty does call?

The most dramatic option would see President Biden stepping down as candidate and as president too this month.

The president has talked before about “come to Jesus” moments. Maybe this is his – a sudden realisation and recognition that the road is up for him.

Right now it involves quite a leap to imagine this happening but, as extraordinary and inconceivable as it may seem, don’t rule it out.

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It is arguably the most logical and cleanest way the party can move forward into the election if the consensus is that President Biden cannot win and should not run.

Kamala Harris, the vice-president, would then be sworn in as president and become the Democratic Party nominee for the November election. Importantly, this would allow her to run as a tested incumbent. She would choose a new running mate.

There is a key financial consideration supporting this option. The millions of dollars of campaign finances in Democratic Party coffers are assigned to the Biden-Harris campaign. So only Kamala Harris has automatic access to these funds.

This option raises questions over how electable Harris is. If an aging President Biden looks set to lose to Trump, well, then how much better are Harris’s chances?

Certainly, polls put Harris-Trump closer than Biden-Trump. Team Trump’s campaign attacks on Harris suggest they see her as a threat.

The other option would be for President Biden to stay on as president but stand aside as the 2024 candidate.

The question then is whether Kamala Harris becomes the candidate or whether a new as-yet-unvetted candidate is chosen through a mini-primary process at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in August.

This would be messy and the optics of sidelining the heir-apparent African-American candidate Harris for someone else would be controversial.

An August convention showdown would also doubtless prompt infighting between those who might want the job. There would also be complex funding issues, given the rules about the Biden-Harris money pot.

All options carry huge political risk for the Democratic Party and will ensure that focus is on them and not on the existential threat that they see in Trump.

What a mess the Democratic Party has created for itself.

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