‘In denial’: Democrats livid that Biden is digging in

President Joe Biden’s first televised interview since last week’s debate meltdown did little to stop the bleeding.

Members of Congress and top Democratic operatives told POLITICO shortly after Biden’s sit down with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos aired that the president was more energetic and forceful than he was on stage during last week’s showdown with Donald Trump — but it likely won’t be enough to tame the panic.

And many were shocked by the president’s blatant denial about his standing in the race, and his repeated dismissal of his party’s widespread concerns. It’s an approach some Democrats described as “dangerous.”

“He was more animated and made a strong case for what he has done. But the question the debate raised is about his fitness for the next four years, not his performance in the past four years,” said David Axelrod, the longtime Democratic operative who helped lead Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. “And he simply doesn’t acknowledge that concern. He also is in denial about where he is in this race.”

A House Democrat, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said: “Denial of the problem is not a solution or a path forward to convincing our constituents that he has the capacity or the vision for four more years.”

And another Democratic operative who has advised the White House called the interview a “stay of execution” but added that the president’s “acceptance of losing to Trump as long as he tried his best will make his hand significantly worse with every Democratic office holder who does not want to lose their seat.”

The freakout inside the Democratic Party has continued to metastasize in recent days. Few Democratic strategists believe the president’s interview on Friday will stem the onrush of Democratic incumbents and candidates who will call for Biden’s ouster. Already, four members have said they believe Biden should step down as the nominee, and another two have said they don’t believe Biden can beat Trump. And when Congress reconvenes next week, many in the party are bracing for more defectors.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries is set to meet Sunday afternoon virtually with Democratic ranking members of committees to discuss mounting concerns over Biden, according to two people familiar with the situation who were granted anonymity to speak freely about the meeting. And Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has approached Senate Democrats to organize a discussion on Biden’s path forward. Both chambers of Congress will be back in Washington from their Fourth of July recess for votes Monday evening, when Democratic leaders will inevitably have to address the topic in person with rank-and-file members.

“Democrats have spent the last few days trying to give him space and grace,” said a former Biden administration official. “Because he’s digging in, we’re seeing an effort to take it up a notch or two. And that should be more worrying to the Biden operation than anything.”

The ABC interview was framed by some Biden allies as a pivotal opportunity for the president to convince his party that he’s up to the task. It came as polls show him in his worst electoral position of the 2024 election, as more voters than ever have an unfavorable opinion of Biden, believe he’s too old to run again and want someone else to lead the Democratic ticket.

A defiant Biden held a campaign event in Wisconsin on Friday before recording the interview. He repeatedly said on Friday — at his event, on social media, during the interview and in fundraising emails — that he wasn’t dropping out of the race, and he used the ABC interview to dismiss his devastatingly low polling numbers and growing pleas for him to step aside.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get out of the race,’ I’d get out of the race,” Biden said. “The Lord Almighty’s not coming down.”

Biden’s repeated dismissals and refusal to seriously address concerns about his age and mental acuity struck many Democrats watching the interview closely. A Democratic official who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign said it appears Biden’s team “isn’t being straight with him, and that’s dangerous.”

And Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said she particularly found Biden’s answer about taking a cognitive test unnerving.

“I found the answer about taking a cognitive test every day to be unsettling and not particularly convincing, so I will be watching closely every day to see how he is doing, especially in spontaneous situations,” she said.

On the hill, Democrats have discussed gathering signatures for letters that would call on Biden to step aside. Those efforts are likely to pick up steam once they gather again in Washington. A growing number of Democratic members and operatives have said privately — and a few publicly — that they believe Biden will be a serious drain on their efforts to wrest back control of the House.

“I think the self-interest of the guys on the ballot will be what sinks him. Once people realize he’s going to take everyone down with him,” said an aide to a Democratic governor, granted anonymity to frankly discuss the situation.

The Biden campaign described Biden’s performance Friday — a rally in Wisconsin followed by his interview with Stephanopoulos — as “forceful” in talking points, noting that he answered every question, gave remarks to a over 1,000 supporters and answered questions from the traveling press pool, according to talking points obtained by POLITICO.

“Overall, the takeaway was clear: President Biden is clear-eyed and he’s fully in this race to win,” according to talking points circulated by the Biden campaign.

A handful of Biden allies came out forcefully in defense of the president. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) repeated Friday that Biden is the party nominee and that Dems need to “get a spine or grow a set.” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Biden is “who our country needs,” while Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) shared the interview and said he can’t wait to help Biden “continue to take the fight to Trump and win in November.”

But their positive reviews did little to convince Democrats overall that Biden is well-situated to beat Trump.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) became the latest member of Congress to call for Biden to withdraw from the 2024 presidential race earlier Friday, joining his House Democratic colleagues Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Seth Moutlon (Mass.).

“Your legacy is set. We owe you the greatest debt of gratitude,” Quigley said on MSNBC Friday evening. “The only thing you can do now to cement that for all time and prevent utter catastrophe is to step down and let someone else do this.”

Elena Schneider, Daniella Diaz, Brakkton Booker, Ally Mutnick, Eli Stokols, Adam Cancryn and Shia Kapos contributed to this report.