Hur’s comments and Biden’s press conference spread panic among Democrats. “If we don’t get an emergency transplant, we’re going to die,” one donor told me. Ezra Klein, of the Times, argued that Biden was governing well but was no longer capable of sustaining the “performance” that a campaign requires: “Whether it is true that Biden has it all under control, it is not true that he seems like he does.” Klein proposed that Democrats hold an open convention this summer and let a “murderers’ row of political talent” compete for the nomination. Proponents often mention Gretchen Whitmer, Raphael Warnock, and Gavin Newsom, among others. But, at the moment, none of these people poll better against Trump than Biden does, or have enough money on hand to mount a serious campaign. And holding an open convention risks fracturing the Party, as a relatively small group of insiders scramble to pick a candidate. The last time Democrats held an open convention, in 1968, a Party divided by war fought openly; the losers stayed home on Election Day, and Richard Nixon won by one per cent.

Unless Biden decides to step aside, it is overwhelmingly likely that he will be the nominee in November. “There is no group of wise men or women who compose the Party anymore, who have the assumed gravitas,” Michael Kazin, the author of “What It Took to Win,” a history of the Democratic Party, told me. “The President now runs the Party.”

Like many Democrats, Axelrod has turned his critiques to the opposition. “Now I think the question is: how do you make the best argument for Biden in a race against Donald Trump?” he told me. “Both these guys are old. The difference between them is one of them is actually working on the project of building a better future—not for himself, but for the country and for our kids and grandkids. And then you have on the other side a guy who’s not looking to the future but is consumed by his own past.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, voiced a position that I encountered among many high-ranking Democrats. “He’s not the only option that we had,” he told me. “But, once he’d made the decision to go, he became the only option that we have.” In the months that remain, Whitehouse said, the best way to beat Trump is a strategy that he called “Biden plus offense.” When people are “frightened or angry, you need to convince them that you, too, are equally concerned and you’re willing to throw punches and pick fights,” he said. “If you’ve got your sleeves rolled up and you’re waist-deep fighting alligators in the swamp, then nobody’s really thinking about your age.”

Last March, Trump held the first rally of his 2024 Presidential campaign in Waco, Texas—a choice with unsubtle significance. Thirty years before, federal agents in Waco confronted a cult called the Branch Davidians, whose members were stockpiling weapons and explosives in their compound. After a siege, the building caught fire, and more than seventy people died. The incident became a rallying cry for right-wing activists and militiamen, who see themselves as locked in conflict with a tyrannical regime. Trump’s event embraced the full aesthetic of anti-government resistance. He stood onstage with his hand over his heart, while loudspeakers blared “Justice for All”—a recording in which inmates serving time for their role on January 6th sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance. (“Justice for All” later reached the top of a Billboard chart.) While the song played, a huge screen showed scenes of the riot at the Capitol. Trump told the crowd, “For seven years, you and I have been taking on the corrupt, rotten, and sinister forces trying to destroy America.” He declared, “2024 is the final battle.”

The violence of January 6th has become a touchstone for Biden, too, but with a different valence. He staged his first rally of 2024 on the eve of the riot’s third anniversary, near a site chosen to dramatize the stakes: Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where George Washington hunkered down in 1777 and turned a group of militias into a cohesive force for democracy.

The encampment sprawled across a grassy plateau, where Washington arrived at the head of a contingent of weary and ill-equipped soldiers. Biden arrived in Marine One, accompanied by dusty green military helicopters loaded with advisers, security staff, and the press pool. The Presidential arrival is a hoary ritual of the media, but these days it carries the added risk that any stumble will become fodder for critics. Biden descended the steps from the helicopter and turned back to extend a hand to Jill Biden, his wife. They gazed at the weathered remnants of the revolutionary camp, then ducked into a waiting limousine. After a couple of stops—laying a wreath at a memorial, visiting a stone house that Washington used as his headquarters—the motorcade headed to a community college in the nearby suburb of Blue Bell, where Biden would give a speech.

Biden stepped onstage to the audience’s chant of “Four more years!” But little of what followed bore much resemblance to a typical campaign speech. There was no ingratiation, no name-check for the local pols. He barely bothered with the requisite list of first-term achievements. “The topic of my speech today is deadly serious,” he began, “and I think it needs to be made at the outset of this campaign.” He talked of the sacrifices memorialized at Valley Forge. “America made a vow—never again would we bow down to a king,” he said. “Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time.” He turned to the memory of January 6th and ticked through the horrors of that day—the wooden gallows, the chants of “Where’s Nancy?” Over and over, he named Trump—more than forty times in all. “Trump lost sixty court cases—sixty,” Biden said. “The legal path just took him back to the truth: that I won the election, and he was a loser.” The crowd erupted in chuckling applause.

Biden responds to doubters with a question: “If you thought you were best positioned to beat someone who, if they won, would change the nature of America, what would you do?”

Four years ago, Biden tried to position himself as a unifier in an age of conflict and name-calling. But there is less of a market for that this time, and in any case he finds it hard to hide his contempt. He conjured the image of Trump joking about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, who was struck with a hammer, fracturing his skull: “He laughed about it. What a sick—” Biden held up his hands, as if to stop himself from going further, and clenched his fists as the crowd applauded. (In private, Biden is less decorous; among other things, he has been heard to call Trump a “sick fuck.”) He cited Trump’s threat to give the death penalty to Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his reported mockery of dead soldiers as “suckers” and “losers.” (Trump has denied this.) “How dare he?” Biden asked. “Who in God’s name does he think he is?” He was rolling now, calm and clear. Preserving America’s democracy, he told the crowd, is “the central cause of my Presidency.”

For nearly half a century in Washington, Biden worked on many things—foreign policy, crime, domestic violence. It’s only now, in the era of Trump, that he has arrived at a defining mission. In the final moments of the speech, he posed a question that will almost certainly feature in his rhetoric in the months ahead, a question that could be posed to Biden as much as to the audience. “We all know who Donald Trump is,” he said. “The question we have to answer is: who are we?”

Among the staff members backstage at the rally, none had spent more time formulating that day’s message than Mike Donilon, an unassuming man in a roomy gray suit. Donilon is, as Sheldon Whitehouse puts it, the “high priest of Bidenism.” At sixty-five, he has short white hair, long white eyebrows, and a quiet voice, often used to deliver gnomic pronouncements. He does not tweet or go on television, and even after decades in politics he slips into restaurants in D.C. without attracting notice. He started out as a pollster before making ads and running strategy for campaigns, and has worked with Biden off and on since 1981, longer than nearly any other member of his inner circle. In the 2020 election, it was Donilon who spurred Biden on, helping to shape the campaign around the concept of a “battle for the soul of a nation.” He followed Biden into the White House as a senior adviser.

Donilon’s mild demeanor can be misleading. Like Biden, he has firm beliefs—about politics, the public, the press—and a contrarian side. In 2020, he and his campaign team had to decide whether to emphasize the economy or the more abstract idea that Trump imperilled the essence of America. “We bet on the latter,” Donilon said, even though “our own pollsters told us that talking about ‘the soul of the nation’ was nutty.” That experience fortified his belief that this year’s campaign should center on what he calls “the freedom agenda.” By November, he predicted, “the focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6th.”

He sees a parallel to the race between George W. Bush and John Kerry, in 2004. At the time, Donilon was working on television ads for Kerry. “The Democratic Party didn’t want to believe it was a 9/11 election,” he said. Instead, the Party tried to focus on an array of issues—the war in Iraq, the economy, hostility to Bush. But, shortly before the election, a new video of Osama bin Laden was released that dredged up memories of 9/11. Bush won, and Donilon vowed not to repeat the error: “I decided, after the election, I would never be part of a Presidential campaign that didn’t figure out—with clarity—what it wanted to say and stick to it.”

It’s easy to miss how unusual a “freedom agenda” is for a Democratic Presidential campaign. Since the nineteen-sixties, Republicans have held fast to the language of freedom—from the backlash against civil rights to the Tea Party to the Freedom Caucus. But Democrats have been trying to convince the public that the Republican Party under Trump has transformed into the “MAGA movement,” an authoritarian crusade bent on dominion. Donilon said, “At its heart, it doesn’t believe in the Constitution, doesn’t believe in law, embraces violence.” He sees an opportunity for Democrats to be “in a place where they usually aren’t.” They can lay claim to the freedom to “choose your own health-care decisions, the freedom to vote, the freedom for your kids to be free of gun violence in school, the freedom for seniors to live in dignity.”

The idea of wrapping the 2024 campaign around this kind of high concept is divisive in Democratic circles. “I’m pretty certain in Scranton they’re not sitting around their dinner table talking about democracy every night,” David Axelrod told me. “The Republican message is: The world’s out of control and Biden’s not in command. That’s the entire message—Trump, the strongman, is the solution. I think you have to be thinking about how you counter that, and how you deal with fears about Biden’s condition.” Axelrod argues that in 2020, even as the Democrats summoned concerns about the soul of a nation, they never lost sight of more concrete issues: “Biden as a guy who really understood and fought for the middle class, Biden as a person of faith, and Biden as someone who had a deep connection to the military. It was basically ‘Biden is one of us.’ ”

“I for one refuse to just sit at the door pining for his return.”

“I, for one, refuse to just sit at the door pining for his return.”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

Donilon is undeterred. He shares Biden’s pride in defying predictions that Democrats would take heavy losses in the 2022 midterms, because of inflation and poor views of the economy; instead, they expanded their Senate majority and picked up two governors’ seats, the best performance in decades by a party in the White House. The freedom campaign, Donilon said, is a story in three acts: “The first act was 2020. Trump represented a threat, and Biden won. 2022 was a second round. You had these election deniers, and all these folks around the country, and they were beaten back.” He added, “Round three is 2024. The thing is, you got to win all the rounds.”

As the crowd dispersed in Pennsylvania, I scanned the social-media reaction to Biden’s speech. His supporters had thrilled to the flashes of anger: “Biden almost slips up and calls Trump a sick fuck”; “pissed off Biden is my favorite Biden.” His opponents were posting, too, of course, but they didn’t bother with the content of his remarks. The Republican National Committee put up a clip of Biden walking stiffly beside the First Lady. Soon, it had been reposted hundreds of times, while the posts in Biden’s favor had not spread as widely.

That was no accident, according to Sarah Longwell, a former Republican strategist and a founder of the Bulwark news site. “Democrats do not build their own echo chambers the way Republicans do,” she said. “It’s a strange communications differential. It’s not rocket science: you create a narrative, you are relentless about promoting it, you have a million people all working from the same sheet of paper.” She continued, “I know that this is a thing with Democrats—it’s like herding cats—but if Biden is not the strongest communicator, why aren’t there hundreds of surrogates for him? Having spent a long time on the Republican side, I am constantly flabbergasted by the inability of Democrats to prosecute a case against Republicans relentlessly, with a knife in their teeth.”

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