Biden's attempt to save his campaign and presidency was too underwhelming for the moment

President Joe Biden, facing a sink-or-swim predicament for his campaign and presidency, could only bob along Friday on the waves of controversy that threaten to overwhelm his candidacy.

Biden didn’t freeze up or rhetorically stumble in his make-or-break interview on ABC News, as he did in last week’s debate. But he also didn’t offer a strong showing to alleviate the concerns of his supporters or undecided voters or likely calm his critics. Instead, he leaned hard on an established campaign narrative about how things went so very wrong for him.

There’s no indication of any serious condition,” Biden said during the 22-minute interview with George Stephanopoulos, blaming a “really bad cold” mixed with fatigue from overseas travel 12 days before the debate. “I was exhausted. I didn’t listen to my instincts in terms of preparing. It was a bad night.”

Biden was also unclear at times, answering a question about what he experienced during the debate, starting with an explanation of how he prepared, only to pivot to New York Times polling in the race, and then shifting to complaints about former President Donald Trump lying “28 times” on stage before drifting off into how the debate was run, while emphasizing that he was not blaming anyone else.

Biden needed a game changer. This wasn’t it. He needed to sound in command of his messaging. This was no time for meandering.

President Biden says he faces cognitive tests every day as America's leader, in an exclusive interview with ABC News George Stephanopoulos.

President Biden says he faces cognitive tests every day as America’s leader, in an exclusive interview with ABC News George Stephanopoulos.

Biden’s political skills are still attuned enough to let him dodge a question. Stephanopoulos pressed him repeatedly on whether he’d be willing to take an independently administered cognitive test and then release the results.

Biden pushed back twice, saying the job of president is “a cognitive test every single day.”

That’s not the resounding defense Biden seemed to think it was. When voters wonder if you’re up to the test, after a serious failure, telling them every day is a test is likely to spark as much apprehension as assuagement.

Biden needs to fix his campaign: Biden is running out of time to fix his campaign. What happens next will decide things.

It takes a tremendous amount of confidence and competence to run for and win the presidency. But what if confidence keeps flowing after competence runs dry? Stephanopoulos tried to explore that. This is what he got:

“I don’t think anyone’s more qualified to be president or win this race but me,” Biden said.

How confident? Biden was asked if he’d reconsider staying in the race if close allies told him that might cost the Democratic Party control of the House and Senate.

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Biden said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Social media has been abuzz all week with ardent Biden supporters who blame his problems on overactive imaginations among the media. That sounded familiar, an echo of the fury Trump’s fans hurl about when he faces criticism that they don’t want to hear.

Whining like Trump fans won’t change the situation for Democrats and does not alter the facts of how we got here. Only Biden can work his way back from the political precipice.

Sure, he looked fired up Friday afternoon during a speech to a cheering crowd at a middle school in Madison, Wis. But he spoke for a scant 17 minutes with a teleprompter. He insisted that nobody would “push me out of the race.”

“I’m not letting one 90-minute debate wipe out three and a half years of work,” Biden said at his afternoon rally as his campaign announced an “aggressive travel schedule” to battleground states for the rest of July.

A 17-minute speech and 22-minute interview during a week of intense risk don’t smack of aggressiveness.

Trump and his campaign initially avoided stepping on the news about Biden’s precarious position. A popular tactical phrase, often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, says, “Never interfere with your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.”

Trump is still horrible: Debate proved neither Biden nor Trump is a good candidate. But one of them is far worse.

But Trump, being Trump, could not stay out of the way. He bragged inaccurately while lounging in a golf cart Wednesday about forcing Biden out of the race, according to video obtained by The Daily Beat. He also whined that day on his social media site Truth Social that Stephanopoulos is “the meanest and most vicious interviewer out there.”

By Friday, Trump was sending fundraising emails proclaiming that “Biden could be dropping out tomorrow while his campaign issued a memo declaring Biden’s “reset mission” was already a failure.

Biden’s margin of error here is vanishingly small. A New York Times/Sienna College Poll this week found Trump ahead of Biden 49% to 43%, showing a swing of three percentage points to the former president from before and after the debate. The poll found that 79% of those surveyed thought Biden is too old to be president.

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Friday’s time on the campaign trail and the ABC interview, at best, may slow down calls from Democratic officials for him to step down, perhaps to be replaced by Vice President Kamala Harris. But it may not.

This is the state of Biden’s campaign now, always one slip away from a fatal fall. Staying politically alive next week will probably buy him another week under close scrutiny. Picture four straight months of that because that’s what we’ll get between now and Election Day if Biden stays in the race.

Biden attempts to project the façade of a man going nowhere. That may well become the theme of his campaign.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Chris Brennan on X, formerly known as Twitter: @ByChrisBrennan

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden interview with ABC was another critical moment. He failed

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