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Why Democratic Rep. Adam Smith thinks Biden isn't the right party pick for this moment

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Democrats are deeply divided over President Biden and his future within their party. On one side of the debate, some of the biggest names are fierce defenders of the President and his campaign for another four years in the White House. And on the other side of that debate, many Democrats are publicly or privately struggling with questions about the President's fitness for office and whether he is best positioned to beat Donald Trump. One of those people who is publicly calling on Biden now to step aside is the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Washington Congressman Adam Smith. He joins us now. Congressman, welcome.

ADAM SMITH: Oh, thank you for having me on.

SUMMERS: Congressman, you've come out today publicly saying for the first time that President Biden should end his campaign. Walk us through your thinking. What led you to make that judgment?

SMITH: Sure. I mean, I think it starts with the fact that I think Democrats have a great message, this cycle. We've got a great record to run on. And frankly, President Biden's done a good job as president. You know, you look at how the economy went as we came out of COVID - he's made substantial improvements. And then as Democrats, we've done a good job, you know, passed the Infrastructure Act, passed the Inflation Reduction Act. There's a great record to run on, No. 1. No. 2, Donald Trump is an existential threat to this country. And Project 2025 sort of lays out what that threat is in great detail.

We had a great message to run on. What I've seen in the debate, since the debate, frankly, a little bit before the debate, President Biden is not capable of delivering that message effectively or consistently. And the concerns about his health are, you know, papering over our efforts to focus on Trump and that message. We need a better messenger. And I think we have the opportunity to get one, and we ought to take it.

SUMMERS: Talk about your timing, though. Congressman, I'm hearing you say that this isn't just about the debate - that you had concerns, perhaps slightly prior to the debate. What made you decide to go public right now to call the President to step aside today?

SMITH: Well, two things - one, the debate was the tipping point. And look, you know, President Biden was old when he got elected the first time. And there was some - you know, he kind of alluded, you know, I'm going to be a bridge. So when he started muttering about running again, I was like, is that really going to work? But then he decided to run. And I'm like, OK, he's in. No one else is running. So let's go. But then the debate performance, really - you know, look, that wasn't just a bad night.

SUMMERS: OK.

SMITH: I've never seen a debate performance that bad in my life. And I'm not just talking on the presidential level. So right after that, I called the next day. I called the White House and said, look, I think you should step aside. But, you know, it's a snap judgment. And I need to think about it, and I'm going to give you some time. And I had a number of conversations with Biden campaign officials as well as...

SUMMERS: Any with the president himself?

SMITH: No, no, no. You know, they did not reach out to me in that regard. And so - and frankly, what followed from the debate, the president not coming out and addressing the issue, not being out in public for - you know, after one rally for, like, five days, not doing the type of impromptu thing that would reassure voters that he could handle that, you know, it just reached the point by the end of the week. And I had - you know, they asked me to give them more time, so I did, OK? - until Monday. So today is Monday, and nothing had gotten better. I mean, you saw the White House press conference today that descended into a discussion about why a Parkinson's doctor was meeting with President Biden's physician eight times. It's a distraction from a message that we need to deliver at a time that it could not be more important.

SUMMERS: If President Biden is not the right candidate for this moment, who should be the party's nominee heading into November? Should it be Vice President Kamala Harris?

SMITH: I think yes. I think Kamala Harris, you know, particularly in the last two years, has really been strong. Her voice on, you know, reproductive health care rights for women, you know, on the Ukraine War - I go to the Munich Security Conference. She's been there. She's delivered the speech forcefully. I think she's shown herself to be capable of delivering a message with great strength. But, you know, we got at least a couple dozen really talented people with great resumes and ability out there, and it's ultimately up to the delegates at the convention if President Biden releases them. You know, I would support Harris, but I would accept the judgment of those delegates.

SUMMERS: We should note that President Biden has made aggressive attempts to dispel concerns over his continued candidacy. He wrote a letter to Democratic members of Congress, as you well know. He appeared on MSNBC today, where he said - and I'm going to quote him here - "if any of these guys don't think I should run, run against me." He said he's staying in. He argues that the focus on his abilities is distracting your party from the work of defeating former President Trump in November. What do you say to that?

SMITH: That is President Joe Biden's fault exclusively, that we are focused on that. He was the one who said anytime, anywhere. He was the only one on that debate stage with Donald Trump. He is the reason people are talking about this. And frankly, it's offensive that he doesn't take responsibility for that, that he tries to throw it back at us. He's the one who hasn't been transparent and honest about his health care situation, and he's the one who has not been capable of delivering the message in an effective and clear way. That's why we are focused on the issue - because of the way he is running his campaign. So yeah, I guess we could just tell the American people, don't worry about the president's health. Don't worry about the fact that he can't communicate a message and try and ignore it. I just - I don't think that would be a winning strategy.

SUMMERS: I want to pick up on something you just said there. You said that - I'm paraphrasing you - that the president has not been honest about his health care situation.

SMITH: He has not been - sorry.

SUMMERS: Do you believe that he is hiding something about his health?

SMITH: I could be wrong. We can go back through it. I said he has not been transparent.

SUMMERS: OK, sure. OK.

SMITH: OK? Transparent is an entirely different thing than honest. Maybe it's OK, but they're not letting us see so that we can independently be sure. Transparent is very different than honest.

SUMMERS: What would you like to see more from the White House or from the president or from the campaign on the - as the matter of the president's health?

SMITH: Well, I mean, I think given what happened in the debate and given a lot of the commentary, he should bring in an independent physician who should give him a full health workup, including a neurological examination. He should release that information publicly. By the way, Donald Trump should do the same thing.

SUMMERS: OK.

SMITH: And that's what's so frustrating about this. Donald Trump gave the second worst debate performance in the history of presidential debates. Unfortunately, President Biden gave the worst at the same time. So yes, I'd like to see him release those records, and I'd like to see him come out and do a press conference, take the questions and answer them and address it and meet those concerns head-on.

SUMMERS: Congressman, we've got about a minute left. I want to ask you, to your judgment, was the president ill served by his staff and those close to him, not just in the days surrounding that debate that we've been talking about, but also in his decision to run for president in the first place? Was he - is this an issue where he's getting bad guidance?

SMITH: Yeah, I don't go there, OK? You know, I got elected Congress a long time ago now, but one of the things they said is, it's your name on the door. OK? You make the decisions. President hired those people. It is Joe Biden's decision. I frankly think he's got an outstanding staff. You know, I've worked with them on a number of policy issues as well as politics. They're a talented, dedicated group of people. Joe Biden owns these decisions. He's in charge. He's running it. So, you know, and let me just say, I've not seen any - I've not heard anything of Joe Biden blaming his staff.

SUMMERS: OK. Sure.

SMITH: So I'm not saying he is. I'm just saying that we should not go there. And look, you know, this - you know, this comment about the elites, it was the party. It's - they're not elites. It's the party.

SUMMERS: Right.

SMITH: In 2020, they decided Joe Biden was the guy. They pushed other people out. They supported him. 2020 he was...

SUMMERS: All right, Congressman.

SMITH: ...Now he's not. We need to pick someone better.

SUMMERS: Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington. Congressman, thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Appreciate the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gus Contreras
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.