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Should President Biden step aside in the 2024 election?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The morning after a catastrophic debate performance by President Joe Biden, damning editorials and opinion pieces sprung up across the country's main news platforms like mushrooms, urging Biden to end his reelection bid. One of the pieces that got the most attention was written by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman is influential, friendly with Biden and often supportive of the Biden administration's policy goals. So people took notice when he wrote, quote, "Joe Biden, a good man and a good president, has no business running for reelection." Thomas Friedman joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Great to be with you, Scott.

DETROW: Why did you write this column?

FRIEDMAN: Because it was very clear to me that President Biden did not have the mental acuity and capacity to give the most basic and obvious responses to Donald Trump in that debate. And if that's where his head is at right now, you know, five months before the election, let alone before a full second term, it just doesn't seem to be he's up to the job - because there's two parts of being president, Scott. There's doing the presidency, which he's done very well. There's also being president, inspiring people, inspiring leadership. And what you saw that night was something quite shocking to me as he just did not seem up to the second at all.

DETROW: Is this something you've thought about, considered writing before?

FRIEDMAN: I've had enough personal interactions with the president to feel that I wasn't there yet. You know, I felt when I engaged with him, you know, he was quite on point when he needed to be. But it's been months since - I would say maybe six months since I've had a one-on conversation with him. And I was surprised. This was not the man I had spoken to just six months ago.

DETROW: After your column was posted on Friday, Biden goes out and gives this high-energy - for him - stump speech. We've seen high-profile Democrats like President Obama start to circle the wagons and support him. I'm curious - any second thoughts on your end?

FRIEDMAN: No, I think he did that speech off a teleprompter, and I'm glad he did that and could do that. And I understood, writing that piece, how complicated it would be to find an alternative right now. But this just did not look to me like a president who could possibly finish his second term. And therefore, you're voting for, really, Kamala Harris if he wins. And if he loses, you've got Donald Trump. And so there are multiple risks all around. And to me, the least-risk option is for the president to announce himself that he's releasing his delegates to open the process again in the Democratic Party. And I think Democrats would have a chance to win. It will be messy, but everything is messy. There are no good options now going forward.

DETROW: I mean, this would all be unprecedented, but it's also unprecedented to have a convicted criminal on the ballot. There's many other things here that we just haven't dealt with before. Given all of that and given what we saw Thursday, are you surprised that more elected officials are not raising these concerns on the record and in public at this point?

FRIEDMAN: These things tend to take time. This was a big shock to the system.

DETROW: Yeah.

FRIEDMAN: But one of the things that disturbed me most, Scott, is that there were, like, obvious answers to rebut Trump's fire hose of lies, which Biden didn't take. On the question of Putin's Russia, for instance, and Trump saying, well, if I come in, you know, Putin will settle Ukraine, you know, once - well, there's a reason that Putin likes Trump - because Trump is a chump, because Putin understands that if Trump is present, he can never organize an alliance. Biden then could have said, I just came from the G7 summit. And you know what, Mr. Trump? Do you know how many other leaders came up to me and said, God, please tell me Donald Trump isn't going to win - same leaders who three years ago said, thank God, America is back. There were a million ways he could have rebutted him, and he didn't.

DETROW: I do have to ask - I don't know if you can answer - but any response from Biden or his orbit to you from your column?

FRIEDMAN: No.

DETROW: If Joe Biden stays in the race and loses and Donald Trump returns to the White House, how will you remember Biden the man and Biden the president?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I'll remember Biden the man as a decent and good man. I'll remember Biden the president as someone who did a very good job in, first of all, preventing a second term of Donald Trump at that time and also beginning to build the bridge we need to the 21st century. And I'll remember him as a man who took a crazy and unnecessary risk in running for reelection and left us with Donald Trump at an incredibly critical time in the country.

DETROW: That's New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Thank you so much.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you, Scott. 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.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.