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Biden to face heavy scrutiny at high-stakes press conference

By Alex Gangitano - 7/11/24, 6:00 AM EDT

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President Biden will enter another high-stakes moment in his reelection campaign Thursday when, under heavy scrutiny, he will face the media in a rare solo press conference where he is sure to be met with a barrage of questions over whether he can stay in the race. 

The press conference will close out the NATO summit in Washington, where Biden has hosted world leaders this week. But the panic around his 2024 bid since the June 27 debate with former President Trump has hardly subsided, with reporters peppering the White House with questions about his mental acuity, fitness for office and what sort of medical treatment he has received.

Now, Biden will face scores of journalists himself, setting up for another make-or-break moment Democrats will also be watching closely to determine how strongly they will back their presumptive candidate for November.

“I think it’s a huge moment,” a Democratic bundler told The Hill, adding that Biden has to do better than he did in the interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that aired Friday.

“I think it’s a tougher audience, and a tougher set of questions, too,” the source said. “He doesn’t know who’s going to ask what. I think if he tries to wrap up quickly, doesn’t take many questions, that will be a negative.”

The ABC interview, which was among his first fully unscripted events since the debate, didn’t slow down calls for him to back out of the race. Stephanopoulos himself, randomly stopped by a pedestrian in New York on Wednesday, appeared to say he doesn’t think Biden can serve another four years. Biden has another unscripted event Monday, when he sits down with NBC News’s Lester Holt for an interview during a campaign stop in Austin, Texas.

With Biden’s political future in question, despite his clear declarations that he isn’t stepping aside, the press conference will act as another major test of his now troubled campaign.

“Everything’s at stake, and that’s the problem, because every day he's got to bat 1.000,” Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins said. “Tomorrow, he’s got to hit 1.000. The day after that, he’s got to hit 1.000. And I don’t know how anyone can do that.”

Hopkins added that even if Biden performs “really well” at the press conference, “then it almost raises expectations for the next event. And so, it creates this narrative of uneven performances.”

“If he’s good, he’s damned. If he’s bad, he’s even more damned,” he said.

One senior House Democrat's assessment of the situation is that Biden has to "change the image of what took place at the debate. He’s got to show that he can stand up and answer questions from the press and do it in an authoritative manner and in a coherent manner.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said the presser had at least some potential to quell some of Biden's recent critics.

“I think a lot of people are going to be watching that press conference. And so it’s an opportunity for him to bring his A game, and that would go a long way toward putting things to rest. Anything short of that is gonna be complicated," Huffman said.

The press conference is expected to be similar in length to other solo postsummit press conferences Biden has participated in, according to the White House. 

The president’s last solo press conference was in November in San Francisco on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, after he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier that day. That press conference was about 22 minutes long.

While the president doesn’t receive questions ahead of a press conference from the media, the White House typically decides beforehand which outlets he will call on. He can, at times, spar with reporters over questions on matters he disagrees with.

Some Democrats are optimistic that the press conference will go well but they argue that it won’t change the trajectory for Biden, considering the damage the debate has done to his political future.

"I strongly doubt it’s going to be similar to the debate performance,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish said.

But, he added, “One big boy press conference is not going to destroy what is a nearly-set narrative.”

The “big boy press conference" term launched last week, when a reporter asked press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre for the nature of events Thursday and if it will be a "big boy" press conference, meaning Biden would take multiple questions and stay on the stage for a long time and alone as opposed to a joint press conference with a world leader.

Jean-Pierre has since jokingly used the term to describe the press conference, but the White House hasn’t specified how many questions the president will take.

Biden has been struggling to receive strong votes of confidence from his allies in the party since the debate.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) caused an uproar on Wednesday when she told MSNBC, “it’s up to the president to decide if he is going to run. We're all encouraging him to make that decision, because time is running short,” although Biden has been adamant that he is running.

“I want him to do whatever he decides to do, and that’s the way it is,” she added when pressed on if she wanted him to run.

David Axelrod, top aide to former President Obama, called those comments “very significant” and noted Pelosi is “a very deliberate person.”

Meanwhile, several sitting House Democrats have called for him to step down, including Rep. Pat Ryan (N.Y.), who became the eighth sitting House Democrat to do so.

Actor and top Biden fundraiser George Clooney became the president's most famous detractor when he wrote in an op-ed Wednesday that Democrats can’t win with Biden at the top of the ticket. Clooney hosted a star-studded fundraiser for the incumbent just last month.  

The press conference now stands to elicit an uptick in Democratic lawmakers, donors, and operatives calling for Biden to step aside if he falters and has another poor unscripted public performance.

“He’s not going to be able to do anything where people are going to have their concerns from the debate mollified,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns. “But if he has a bad performance at the press conference or in an interview in two weeks, it’s just fatal.”

Brett Samuels, Julia Mueller and Mychael Schnell contributed.

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