Nancy Pelosi subtly opens the door to replacing Joe Biden

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent Washington a very early wake-up call on Wednesday when she deftly dodged a simple question in a morning television interview: Should President Biden run for re-election?

In a 10-minute television appearance on “Morning Joe” at 7:40 a.m., Pelosi – who has a decades-long relationship with the president and still enjoys the deep respect of her colleagues – left her Signs of the biggest political crisis the Democratic Party has faced in years.

“It’s up to the president to decide whether to run. We all encourage him to make that decision because time is running out,” said the California Democrat. “He’s popular, he’s respected and people want him to make that decision.”

In those few sentences on a show Biden is known to watch, Pelosi did not directly call for Biden to resign. But she clearly reframed a delicate but urgent debate among Capitol Hill lawmakers, Democratic donors, party strategists and voters after Biden’s poor debate performance two weeks ago raised questions about whether he can beat Donald Trump and serve another term as president.

In a letter to Democrats on Capitol Hill this week, Biden insisted he is running for re-election. But Pelosi said on morning television with subtle precision that the president must make a “decision.” She was the most prominent among a number of Democrats who painted a picture of a president deeply considering whether to run, even as Biden and his camp say there is no other choice.

And it left Democrats on Capitol Hill wondering whether they can actually influence Biden’s course four months before November.

Those who knew and observed Pelosi in previous administrations believe that she does not act in a vacuum and chooses her language consciously. Her timing was remarkable: According to Democrats who worked with and around the former speaker, she came a few days after the president published his letter and one day before an important press conference by Biden.

Pelosi, who remains speaker of the House even after her resignation, is “always very thoughtful about what she says,” said a senior Democratic lawmaker. said the consultant.

In the hours after her speech, a New York lawmaker from a competitive district – Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan – said he could no longer support Biden, the 12th Democratic member of the House, in urging the president to resign. New York Lieutenant Governor and former House member Antonio Delgado said it was time for a “new leader.” Otherwise, the most prominent voice calling for Biden to withdraw from the race on Wednesday was actor George Clooney. A Democrat in the Senate – Peter Welch (Vermont) – was the first senator to publicly call for Biden to resign, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Wednesday night.

“We cannot undo President Biden’s disastrous performance in the debate. We cannot ignore or dismiss the legitimate questions that have been raised since that night,” Welch said.

Pelosi’s television interview came just minutes before a group of swing district Democrats was scheduled to meet with Democratic House Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) for a second time to discuss Biden’s candidacy. The most vulnerable lawmakers have become even more fearful in recent days that Biden could be their undoing in the election, as new public and internal polls paint a bleak picture for Democrats and diminish their chances of retaking the chamber. Democrats need to win just four seats to retake the House majority, but all of their most vulnerable lawmakers must win.

Pelosi’s loyalty is to the House of Representatives and she will act in the best interests of the House, two senior Democratic aides in the House of Representatives stressed.

Democrats in Congress are mostly wringing their hands privately over Biden’s performance in the debate two weeks ago, where he at times seemed lost or unable to finish his sentences. But many are hesitant to publicly call for him to abandon his campaign. They say they are waiting for more polling data, the end of the NATO summit in Washington this week and how Biden fares at a press conference on Thursday evening.

Congressional leaders, including Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, have said they support Biden but have said little else, despite widespread fears among their ranks that the president could seriously jeopardize their chances of regaining control of the House and retaining the Senate in November.

“I agree with Nancy. She is stating the obvious,” Welch said Wednesday. “President Biden has made it clear he is all in, but there is growing evidence that an uphill battle is turning into an uphill battle.”

Until Wednesday morning, Pelosi hadn’t said much either. But when she did speak, people in Washington were aware of the potential consequences.

The former speaker is part of a small circle of Democratic power brokers who can effectively pressure the president, say several current and former Hill staffers. A chief of staff to a Democratic congressman said the California Democrat – who is 84 and retired from leadership of the House of Representatives in 2023 – “has the most influence” among party elders and could ultimately deliver a grim message to a defiant Biden given the two’s decades-long relationship.

“There is only one person who has the authority and the balls to tell Biden anything, and that is Pelosi,” said a former Hill aide close to congressional leadership.

Pelosi’s comments were not coordinated with Jeffries, three senior Democratic aides said. The leadership is still in listening mode, these aides said, as the Democratic caucus in the House remains deeply divided over how to assess Biden’s suitability for office.

Jeffries has given his members little direction on how to approach the Biden issue. Privately, he has not told members whether to hold the line for the president, according to five people familiar with his thinking who — like several others interviewed for this article — spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Vulnerable Democrats and other members who have spoken to Jeffries in recent days said they felt he understood their concerns.

In two separate meetings over the past 24 hours, Jeffries told members he would soon share his deep concerns with the president, according to three people familiar with the comments. It is unclear whether a phone call has been scheduled.

But several employees said Jeffries was surrounded when many members of the Congressional Black Caucus have spoken out in support of Biden this week. Jeffries is a member of the CBC and is extremely respectful of the group’s leaders. Moreover, there are doubts within the leadership that the president would take their advice if they raised concerns about the campaign. One senior House Democratic aide lamented that it’s not even clear that members of the House leadership could reach Biden if they tried.

But among Democrats in the Capitol, there is widespread confidence that Biden could listen to Pelosi.

“I’m telling you, she’s probably the most accomplished politician on the planet,” said Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Tex.), who this week praised Biden as one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Biden, 81, and Pelosi, 84, are both Catholics and have worked together for more than three decades on a wide range of domestic and foreign policy issues, including the 1994 crime reform bill that included a ban on assault weapons.

Biden’s last major legislative achievement as a senator, passage of a bill to fight AIDS in Africa in July 2008, was a prominent issue that Pelosi shepherded through the House during her first term as speaker. As vice president, Biden was often tasked with selling Pelosi’s caucus compromises with congressional Republicans that left a sour taste in many Democrats’ mouths – but earned Pelosi’s respect.

After Democrats took full control of Washington in January 2021, Biden and Pelosi, along with Schumer, worked closely on an ambitious policy agenda that included the largest investment ever in fighting climate change. Their partnership became so strong that longtime diplomatic observers – from Foggy Bottom to Rome – took note of Biden’s delay in appointing a U.S. ambassador to Italy in late 2021 and 2022. That sparked intense speculation that if she were to step down as speaker, the president wanted to send the Italian-American Catholic to Rome as the crowning achievement of her tenure.

She denied these rumors, and after deciding to give up the presidency, Pelosi made the unusual decision to stay in the House of Representatives and rejoin the rank and file, albeit with the same dignity and honorary title: “Speaker Emerita.”

Until last week, Pelosi was arguably the most effective defender of Biden’s age and abilities among Democrats, routinely turning any question on the subject into both an attack on Trump and a strong defense of Biden.

“Joe Biden has vision. He has knowledge. He’s a strategic thinker. He’s a very astute president when it comes to his public speaking,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February. “If he slips up here or there, what’s the point?”

Just five months ago, Pelosi vigorously defended Biden’s handling of matters in private meetings, even if his public statements have yet to be revised somewhat. “I think his public demeanor is fine,” she told Cooper. “I think you see firsthand in meetings that he has the situation under control.”

Liz Goodwin and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

By Everly