All eyes on Jeffries as Democrats weigh Biden’s future

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has found himself at the center of the storm as Democrats weigh the wisdom of keeping President Biden at the top of the ticket following his disastrous debate performance in Atlanta last month. 

The Democratic leader is being squeezed between two powerful but opposing forces. On one side is the predilection to rally behind his White House ally for the sake of party unity. On the other is the growing panic within his caucus that the president would be a drag on Democrats up and down the ballot, sinking the party’s chances of flipping control of the House in this year’s elections. 

Only five House Democrats have come out publicly so far to urge Biden to bow out and make room for another candidate to challenge former President Trump, the GOP’s presumptive nominee, in November. But that number is expected to grow in the days and weeks ahead — especially if polls continue to show that public confidence in Biden’s capacity to hold the office is waning in the wake of the debate.

The converging dynamics are thrusting Jeffries into a high-stakes decision, with all eyes in the House Democratic Caucus — and at the White House — waiting to see how the leader traverses the tricky path ahead.

“Hakeem is very thoughtful and very deliberate,” Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio), a front-line lawmaker, told The Hill. “He takes his time and that has served him well throughout this term in that he’s been able to get, with others, a deal to avoid default, a budget agreement and the national security and global aid package.”

“These aren’t small things, and they didn’t happen without his very deliberate, thoughtful leadership,” Landsman continued. “That’s how he approaches things, it’s how he’s approaching this, which is he takes time to listen to people.”

In the aftermath of the debate, alarmed Democrats voiced private reservations with keeping Biden at the top of the ticket, but most have held their tongues publicly — a reflection of their deference to, and respect for, Jeffries as he weighs the path forward. Some said the goal of winning the presidency should outweigh any allegiances to any one person.

“Our mission is to win the White House and to prevent Donald Trump from getting there,” said one lawmaker, who spoke anonymously to discuss a delicate topic. “We have to have a family conversation, basically.”

Many factors will go into that decision — not only the fitness concerns raised by Biden’s performance, but the effects of that performance on donors, voters and the front-line Democrats facing tough reelections in battleground districts that will decide which party controls the House next year. 

“You might start having guys that are like, ‘Man, we’ve got to put some distance between us and him,’” said another Democratic lawmaker. “For the realpolitik.”

Jeffries, for his part, has kept his cards close to the vest, fueling questions about how he will handle the sensitive situation.

The day after the debate, the top Democrat told reporters that Biden should not step aside. But when asked hours later if the president is the most effective communicator for the party, he appeared to leave the door open to replacing the president.

“Until he articulates a way forward in terms of his vision for America at this moment, I’m gonna reserve comment about anything relative to where we are at this moment other than to say I stand behind the ticket,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries tried to clean up the comments last weekend, telling MSNBC’s “The Weekend” that conversations are taking place “with various parts of the House Democratic Caucus.”

“That’s ongoing, that will continue,” he added.

Jeffries has spoken directly with Biden since the debate, a source familiar with the matter told The Hill, and he held a call with House Democratic leadership last week. His office did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

The decision is easily the most consequential of Jeffries’s young tenure as the leader of House Democrats — a perch he assumed just last year — with the potential to determine whether the party will keep the White House and flip control of the House, where Jeffries would be poised to become the first Black Speaker in the nation’s history. 

Yet it’s not the first major — nor highly unusual — decision of Jeffries’s leadership tenure. Already, he’s guided Democrats through two historic votes to remove a Speaker from power. In the first, he opted not to rescue former-Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from a conservative coup, which sealed McCarthy’s fate as the first Speaker ever to be ousted. In the second, he joined most Democrats in protecting Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) from a similar revolt, ensuring that the Louisiana Republican would keep the gavel. 

In both cases, Jeffries approached the decision discreetly, withholding any final determinations — at least publicly — until he had a chance to huddle, in person, with House Democrats to gauge the temperature of his caucus. That’s led to speculation that Jeffries will follow the same playbook regarding Biden’s future, as well, as Democrats prepare to meet behind closed doors Tuesday morning in the Capitol — their first gathering since Biden’s debate debacle. 

The speculation swirling around Biden’s future is the biggest story in the country, and Landsman said it will be a focus of Tuesday’s meeting “for sure.” 

“How it’s set up, I’m not entirely sure how he’ll do that,” Landsman said, referring to Jeffries.

But as time goes on, pressure — from both sides of the highly charged debate — is continuing to mount around the top Democrat.

Biden, his campaign and the White House, on one hand, have been defiant that the president plans to remain in the race, swatting away at any notion that the incumbent is not up for another four years on the job.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Biden told attendees at the White House’s Fourth of July barbecue.

And a number of Biden’s congressional allies are firmly behind him in that decision. 

“I’m not in panic mode at this point. Very bad night on Thursday, I think everybody has universally acknowledged that already, including the president. But I don’t really feel that he’s incapable of governing, or anything along those lines,” Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) said last week by phone. “He still is the leader of the free world, and he’s doing a good job of it.”

At the same time, however, the chorus of Democrats calling on Biden to step aside is growing.

Three sitting House Democrats — Reps. Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Seth Moulton (Mass.) — have publicly called on Biden to withdraw from the race, speaking for what sources tell The Hill is scores of lawmakers behind the scenes who feel the same way.

“This is the worst decision that the American people have had to make, probably in my lifetime,” Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) said, referencing a distaste for both Biden and Trump. 

“You can’t think about the top of the ticket. I’m running to represent my constituents. It’s about me,” Golden continued. “Could it have an effect on me? Sure. But I’ve already shown that I do my own thing. And no one’s voted against Biden more than I have.”

As House Democrats wait to hear from Jeffries, meanwhile, some are closely watching Biden to see if he can catapult back after his lackluster debate performance, a result that could make the Democratic leader’s decision easier. With that in mind, some are wondering why Biden has had so few public appearances since the debate.  

“It is time for Biden to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that he can prosecute this case against Trump, who is unfit to be president and who will upend our democracy in our lives,” Landsman said.

Asked if he has seen that since the debate, the Ohio Democrat responded: “No.”

“Has anyone? Has he tried?” he asked. “There were 40 million people watching the debate. It’s more than a rally and an interview.”

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