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Ex-Obama aides are among Biden’s loudest postdebate Democratic critics

By Amie Parnes - 7/10/24, 6:00 AM EDT

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Ex-aides to former President Obama have been among the loudest voices in the fiery Democratic debate over whether President Biden should withdraw from the presidential race.

David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, has repeatedly cast doubts about Biden's chances, saying this week that Biden is losing the race and “really needs to consider what the right thing to do here is.”

The former Obama aides who host the popular “Pod Save America” podcast have also publicly voiced concerns about Biden’s ability to defeat former President Trump.

“You know what would've been really helpful in the effort to beat Trump and stop Project 2025? If the Democratic nominee had mentioned it even once during the debate that 50 million Americans watched or his ABC interview that 8 million Americans watched,” Jon Favreau, a former chief speechwriter for Obama, wrote Monday on the social media platform X.

Favreau was referring to policy recommendations endorsed by Project 2025, a coalition of more than 110 conservative groups that have adovcated policy and personneel recommendations for the next conservative president. Project 2025 has repeatedly said the group does not speak for any candidate or campaign, but it has been widely seen as a potential blueprint for a new Trump administration. 

David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager in 2008, described the hours after Biden’s bad debate performance against Trump as “kind of a DEFCON 1 moment” for Democrats.

Jen Psaki, Biden’s first White House press secretary who served Obama for much of his administration, also told viewers of her MSNBC show Monday evening that “there are legitimate questions in this moment, and it isn't only rich donors and coastal elites who are asking them.” 

“I worked for him. I respect him and I care about him deeply,” Psaki acknowledged. “But if I sat here every night and told you that every question being asked out there is unfair, I wouldn't be respecting you. So I'm not going to do that.”

There have long been tensions between some of Obama’s officials and Biden, but the ex-aides have rarely spoken as critically of the current Democratic president as in the past 12 days.

One former Obama aide said those doing so have the best intentions at heart and are honestly worried about the prospect of a new Trump administration. They are speaking “for the greater good, with the intention of saving our democracy,” as one former aide put it. 

On Tuesday’s episode of "Pod Save America," Favreau and co-host Tommy Vietor said their conversations about Biden are not personal.

They think Biden has been a good president, and they have friends — some former Obama aides — who work in the White House and on the campaign. But they think the polls and other data show Biden could lose an election to Trump.

In a Tuesday post on X, Vietor pointed to an AARP survey that showed Trump taking a wider lead in the battleground state of Wisconsin. “I respect those who genuinely believe Biden has the best shot of winning in November. I disagree, but we’re all making our best guess based on available information,” he wrote. “But the people who say shut up, stop talking about it, ignore data like this should be laughed out of politics.” 

Other former Obama aides who are unaffiliated with the podcast agreed with that assessment. 

“Listen, they saw what everyone saw on that Thursday night at the debate and they’re in disbelief, like we all are,” said one former Obama adviser. “I think a lot of us feel like there’s no going back. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle, so all we can do is try our best to be candid and defeat Donald Trump. 

“Is it overkill? Probably. But look at the stakes. This isn’t a normal situation.”

Obama himself issued a statement following the debate supporting Biden.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” the former president said in a post on X, referring to a sloppy debate performance he had during his reelection campaign against Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in 2012. “But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself. 

“Between someone who tells the truth; who knows right from wrong and will give it to the American people straight — and someone who lies through his teeth for his own benefit. Last night didn’t change that, and it’s why so much is at stake in November.”

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Obama spoke with Biden following the debate to “offer his support as a sounding board and private counselor” to his vice president. But the Post noted it is unclear how Obama addressed Biden’s performance and how it would impact his chances of being reelected.

Biden and Vice President Harris have clearly taken note of the commentary from former Obama aides.  

And it’s no secret that Axelrod’s criticism of Biden, which predates the June 27 debate between Biden and Trump, has irritated people in Biden’s circle.

When Biden called into MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" on Monday, Biden was asked about a growing number of pundits, columnists and other Democrats who have said that Biden should reconsider whether he should continue in the race. When host Mika Brzezinski read Axelrod’s name aloud, Biden replied, “Oh you’re kidding. You’re kidding me.” 

Rob Flaherty, the Biden campaign’s digital strategy director, took a swipe at the Democratic naysayers including “self-important podcasters” in a fundraising email sent late last month. 

“There’s clearly some tension between the two sides,” the former Obama adviser said. “But there shouldn’t be. We love Joe, we all do. Good man. Good president.  But no one thinks this is the pathway to victory, even if they say so.”

This story was updated at 11:34 a.m.

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