The problem in sight

Leading Democrats are rallying behind President Biden and have a simple response to his disastrous debate performance: It was just one bad night, and the panic over his candidacy is overblown.

“After Thursday night’s debate, the Beltway class will be the one to beat Joe Biden,” Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon wrote in a memo distributed over the weekend, saying the president’s supporters are fired up and focused on defeating Trump.

The campaign and Biden’s surrogates have tried to portray the panic over Biden’s age, which has grown after the 81-year-old president struggled to speak coherently and finish sentences on Thursday night, as inside-the-Beltway chatter. But it’s actually the opposite. Polls and interviews have shown that voters across the country have long harbored deep reservations about Biden’s age, while Democratic power brokers in Washington have been unwilling to discuss it openly.

Now some Democrats are warning the campaign not to ignore these concerns and instead address them honestly and openly.

“As someone who works at the local level and talks to people every day who come from all walks of life, there is an overriding concern about President Biden’s health and his ability to perform,” said Walt Maddox, who served as Tuscaloosa’s Democratic mayor for nearly 20 years. “Whether that’s true or not, Thursday night’s debate only reinforced that perception.”

“People are concerned,” said Maddox, who was the Democratic nominee for governor of Alabama in 2018, “and I think it would be unwise to ask voters to let go of those concerns.”

Biden had to overcome concerns about his age to win the 2020 Democratic primary, and he won the general election convincingly. But those concerns — and an overwhelming sense of pessimism about his candidacy — persisted afterward, according to polls by The New York Times and others.

In the summer of 2022 a poll A study by The Times and Siena College found that 61 percent of self-identified Democrats wanted someone other than Biden as their presidential nominee. The top reason Democratic voters gave for wanting someone else? His age. (His job performance wasn’t far behind.)

Last summer there was a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Opinion Research found that 77 percent of voters — including 69 percent of Democrats — thought Biden was too old to be effective for another four years, a slightly different question than The Times asked.

In February, more than half of Democrats — 56 percent — said they thought Biden was too old to be an effective president, according to a Times/Siena poll. By June, before the debate, that figure had dropped to 51 percent — a sign that his strong performance at the State of the Union has somewhat improved Democrats’ perception of his age.

But it seems that the debate will erase this gain.

Biden’s advisers have consistently dismissed concerns about his age as being stoked by Republicans, but also by journalists and pundits who have become too focused on it.

But I’ve often noticed that when you talk to regular voters about President Biden, it’s one of the first things they bring up. They talk about what Democrats in Washington won’t do.

A few weeks ago, I asked readers of this newsletter what you thought about this debate. Many of you had a prediction that those closest to Biden apparently didn’t want to make: that he would stumble on stage, feeding the perception that he’s too old.

Phil Laciura, 72, a retired sports editor who lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, told me he was dreading the debate because he believed Biden would “show his age.” I called him back today to see how he was feeling.

“He was terrible,” said Laciura, an independent voter. “He proved he can’t be president.”

Laciura voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. He’s moving to Illinois soon, so he won’t be voting in a crucial swing state. But he says he can’t vote for Biden after the debate. He predicted he wouldn’t vote at all.

“I saw something today, they’re calling him ‘Ruth Bader Biden,’” Laciura said, referring to the aging chief justice who was gently nudged into retirement during the Obama administration so a Democrat could appoint her replacement. She didn’t. And after her death in 2020, she was succeeded by a Trump appointee, Amy Coney Barrett.

Democrats are working hard to defend Biden. But to restore his standing, they will have to win back voters like Laciura — and that could start by acknowledging, not ignoring, those voters’ very real concerns about his age and fitness for another term.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Donald Trump is immune from official acts performed while he was president. The decision expands the president’s powers and makes it even less likely that Trump will be tried for trying to undermine the last election before the next one. But the ruling could create a new opportunity for prosecutors to shine a spotlight on his alleged misconduct, my colleague Alan Feuer said. I asked him to tell us more.

The court ruled that presidents have absolute immunity from criminal prosecution for actions related to the core duties of the presidency, with no immunity for matters outside their official duties. The justices also ruled that presidents are presumed immune for official actions outside their core constitutional duties, but that prosecutors can pursue criminal charges for those actions on a case-by-case basis. What does this mean for Trump?

Jack Smith’s election subversion complaint against Trump outlines several methods he alleges Trump used in his attempt to overturn the results of the last election. The court ruled that one of those methods — his alleged suppression of Justice Department officials to validate his claims that the election was marred by fraud — is off-limits to prosecutors because this was a president dealing with his own top officials.

But when it comes to the other methods he used, including pressuring his vice president not to certify the election and trying to convince state or local authorities not to certify their results, the judge hearing the case will now have to determine whether these were official acts immune from prosecution, or whether they arose out of his unofficial role as a candidate for office.

How is the judge, Tanya Chutkan, going to do that? And how long is that going to take?

Judge Chutkan has a huge task ahead of him and it is now virtually certain that Trump will not be tried on election fraud charges before Election Day.

But what’s notable is that the court is asking her to hold a major hearing to do so. Trump’s team will certainly try to delay this hearing, but it’s possible we could see a multi-day evidentiary hearing, including testimony from people like Mike Pence or some of the state officials Trump has been skewering, during what could be the home stretch of the presidential campaign — possibly September or October.

There could be a mini-trial that would in every way resemble the real trial, except that there would be no jury to render a verdict at the end.

What does this mean for future presidents?

I think the question is, what vision of the presidency motivated this decision? I would say that the conservative majority was motivated by this dark vision of the presidency besieged by partisan persecution, while the dissenting liberal justices were much more concerned about the rise of authoritarianism and the abuse of power that such protections now will afford presidents in the future.

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