• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

Updated Jun 28, 2024, 5:49pm EDT
politics

Jim Clyburn made Joe Biden president once. Can he save him a second time?

White House
PostEmailWhatsapp

In this article:

Title icon

The News

In the story of Joe Biden’s rise to the presidency in 2020, nobody’s been mythologized quite like 83-year-old South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn. With a late endorsement, the longtime House leadership fixture helped deliver his state’s delegates to Biden and revive his flagging campaign after rough showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now Biden is facing the biggest crisis of his political career, with his party openly questioning his viability as a candidate. Clyburn is set to talk to the president tonight.

When I met the Congressman at a building near the Capitol for an interview on Friday, he had just told a group of reporters that the debate was only “strike one” for Biden. I asked if the president really had two more to spare.

AD

“Who knows, he can hit foul balls,” he said. “Everybody remembers Babe Ruth being the home run king. Few people remember how many times he struck out. Who knows? On strike two he may knock it out of the park.”

He offered a now-familiar take on Biden’s showing, asking to focus on the differences between the candidates on their records and platforms.

“I think all of us saw what was not a good performance, but the presidency is a very substantive entity, and President Biden has never been a show horse — he’s always been a workhorse,” Clyburn said.

AD

When it comes to questions about Biden’s hold on the nomination, Clyburn’s response is simple: “Let’s just stay the course.”

“We got two months before we go to the convention and then three months after that to go to the election,” he said. “So there’s no reason to have their hair on fire.”

In the meantime, the Congressional Black Caucus — whose districts form the core of Biden’s base, and which Clyburn helped deliver in the 2020 primaries — was still solidly behind Biden, he said.

AD

“I haven’t talked to a CBC member yet who says he ought to get out,” he told Semafor.

The CBC has proven a critical ally in the past to embattled presidents, notably sticking by President Clinton when the Monica Lewinsky scandal initially threatened to cause a party-wide break. That experience was, Clyburn said when asked about it, “not the same thing, but similar.”

In this article:

Title icon

Know More

Many of the Democrats watching Biden’s debate woke up on Friday with existential questions about their party’s immediate future that they were desperately looking to party elders — Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, certainly Clyburn — to help answer.

Clyburn’s concerns were more technical.

For one, a debate was the wrong format for Biden. Instead he recommended a series of 60-90 minute town halls “to really do what I know he does well” and connect with voters on a human level. He should make sure to get out of the major metro areas in Georgia and Pennsylvania, too, and explore smaller towns and rural areas.

“I hope they don’t have a second debate,” he said. “I really think he just ought to go out and do town halls and talk to people.”

As for Thursday’s debate, he thinks Biden should have organized his answers by giving a holistic breakdown of how his administration has impacted “the individual, the family, and the community,” a public speaking trick his father, a preacher, had taught him decades ago. “We do it for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” he said.

He also thought Biden’s team had thrown him off his game by over-briefing him with factoids and data, a critique some other Democrats had raised.

“I just don’t think you prepare people by loading them up with figures,” Clyburn said.

Biden, he thought, needed to be less reactive to Trump, who seemed to bait him into chasing rabbits with his attacks.

“No matter what your question is, I’m not talking to this guy over here: Ignore him, and look into that camera and embrace it,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn, who is stepping down from House leadership this year but seeking re-election, knows what it’s like to have questions raised about his age. I asked whether he worried back in 2020 when he endorsed Biden that he might someday decline in office. He didn’t directly answer, but suggested the biggest change wasn’t in Biden’s health, it was his switch to a job that required constant attention and offered less time for political performance.

“He had less on his shoulders because he wasn’t responsible for protecting the country from Russian invasion,” he said.

With Biden still in the race, there’s nothing to do for now but work. He’ll be stumping for the president in Florida and Wisconsin.

Title icon

Notable

  • A snap 538/Ipsos poll found debate watchers overwhelmingly thought Trump won — but barely switched votes. Biden lost 1.5 points of support, while Trump 0.4 points.
  • Clyburn’s fellow House Democrats weren’t quite as calm as he was on Friday. “I couldn’t hardly sleep,” Missouri Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver told Semafor.
  • Semafor’s Ben Smith names the seven people who could plausibly convince Biden to drop out. Clyburn is on the list.
Semafor Logo
AD