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Politics & Policy

‘He needs to step down’: City’s political class reels from Biden debate disaster

President Joe Biden in a blue suit and light blue tie is speaking at a podium with microphones. The background is blue, and part of the text "USA 2023" is visible.
President Joe Biden is getting horrible reviews for his debate performance Thursday against Donald Trump. | Source: Stephen Lam/SF Chronicle/POOL

“What a freaking shitshow.”

A seasoned San Francisco political consultant didn’t even wait to properly say hello before uttering these words into the phone. And he wasn’t alone. 

Democrats far and wide are panicking over President Joe Biden’s performance in Thursday night’s debate against Donald Trump. Many supporters of the incumbent have been convulsing on social media since the 81-year-old Biden took the stage and mumbled and meandered his way through an embarrassing spectacle, unable to appropriately confront Trump on his many lies and record as a recently convicted felon.

Concerns about Biden’s age and signs of mental and physical decline have been building for more than a year, but a political consultant who works with major Democratic Party donors and top party officials told The Standard that conversations to replace Biden intensified immediately after the debate.

“It was a political catastrophe that was worse than anybody imagined,” the source said. “There is no way President Biden can win. Anybody who says it was one bad night is kidding themselves.

“Trump was incoherent, but he did it with energy and vigor. Biden looked like a bumbling old man, just like they’ve characterized him.”

Democratic donors and party officials are now talking about swapping out Biden for a different presidential nominee. Names being bandied about include California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Vice President Kamala Harris and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“I think Biden is the biggest threat to democracy—not Trump,” said another political consultant who has worked on state and national campaigns.

“He needs to step down. We’ve all held our noses and got behind him … and then last night just shot that all to hell. We can’t ignore it anymore. It’s sad on a political level for our party, but also our country. It’s sad to see him in this spot as a human being. But he should not be in this position.”

A local tech entrepreneur and Democratic Party donor said that conversations about Biden’s health and mental acuity picked up last November during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, when Biden and other world leaders convened for a week of meetings. Biden often looked slow and sounded sluggish. 

In a speech he delivered to some of San Francisco’s wealthiest Democratic Party donors at the Exploratorium, Biden rambled through his remarks, congratulating Mayor London Breed on being the mayor—it was a little weird—and suggested that Newsom could someday be president, appearing to pass over Vice President Harris as a possibility. 

But the state and national political consultant said that putting Newsom at the top of the ticket would only create more headaches.

“I think swapping in Gavin would be a disaster,” the source said. “That would be just trading out one problem for another.”

Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor whose leadership of California has been a lightning rod for criticism, defended Biden after the debate, saying conversations about replacing him on the Democratic Party ticket are “unhelpful” and “unnecessary.”

Trump and his supporters have frequently called out Biden’s health as an issue on the campaign trail, and venture capitalist David Sacks—who recently hosted a fundraiser for Trump in San Francisco—posed a question many people on both sides of the political aisle are asking.

“If Biden can’t handle a debate,” Sacks said, “how can he handle the most dangerous foreign policy situation since the Cuban Missile Crisis?”

Biden’s debate performance drew comparisons to the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose declining health was well-documented for years. Less than two months until the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, party officials will need to delicately navigate how to convince Biden to step down. Multiple sources said that could require the help of First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

“The overwhelming probability is Biden will be the candidate,” said the San Francisco political consultant. “These people’s egos won’t allow them to step aside. But if you’re a younger person, are you showing up to vote in this election?”