Home National Biden’s fate could come down to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries

Biden’s fate could come down to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill November 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Washington (CNN) — Sunday morning, Hakeem Jeffries went to church back home in Brooklyn. Shortly after, he tweeted a verse from the Book of Joshua: “Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your god will be with you wherever you go.”

That’s from right after the passage where Moses dies of old age, and a new, younger leader takes his people into the Promised Land.

This was a coincidence, people familiar say. He just likes the verse. Didn’t mean to imply anything by the context.

Most House leaders have to wait until becoming speaker for defining moments. Jeffries, still an achingly few five seats away from the majority, will spend this week navigating his biggest test so far even before he gets the gavel — and in a way that could define if he ever will.

The young Black leader of diverse Democrats across the country is in a key spot, many of his colleagues believe: if he stands in support, he could prove the barricade that holds back the restless revolt; if he tells Biden that support has collapsed, that will be more resounding than any poll or campaign fundraising email mocking pundits.

Colleagues both who want the president to stay and who want the president to go — including those infuriated that Biden has called their quiet deference so far proof that he has their support — are counting on Jeffries to step up and get them all on the same page.

That is not the approach Jeffries has taken so far, according to CNN’s conversations over the weekend with two dozen Democratic members of Congress and top aides, many of whom were granted anonymity to discuss their private conversations with their leader and with each other.

As they land back in Washington on Monday evening, all the emotions that they have been feeling so hard are about to explode into public even more than they did on Jeffries’ Sunday evening call with ranking members on top committees. More senior Democrats said they thought Biden needed to go, with New York Rep. Jerry Nadler setting off more discussions by saying the president’s decline was obvious to him. More said they had heard similar sentiment from junior members of their committees.

Several warned that Tuesday morning’s caucus meeting, which several members told CNN they think Biden should address himself (but is not currently scheduled to) could be the breaking point, with Biden’s letter to House Democrats on Monday morning saying he is “firmly committed” to the race and writing of the complaints, “it’s time for it to end,” immediately mocked and dismissed by several senior Democratic members and aides on the Hill.

That leaves Jeffries.

“I think he’s honor-bound to say to the president, ‘You have very little support in the caucus to stay on the ticket,’” said one senior House Democrat.

“It’s time for him to take charge,” said another House Democrat in a tough district who wants to see Biden off the ticket.

On the record, several of Jeffries’ members outlined the role he would play in the crucial days ahead.

“If he’s leaning in one direction, that may cause a lot of people to lean in that direction,” said California Rep. Brad Sherman, while adding, “No one believes Hakeem is in control of this — but he’s influential.”

“He’s really good about laying out the facts and coming in and making people go in the direction that he wants them to go,” said Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Biden loyalist who is frustrated that so much attention has been put on what is so far just a few defections from the president. “I have confidence in him that he will talk to those individuals, and he will figure out how to stop the bleed and move us forward.”

Notably, no member of the Congressional Black Caucus – of which Beatty is a former chair – has broken, in a group Jeffries himself is part of, as are several older members he is often deferential to. The group’s chair, Nevada Rep. Steve Horsford, issued his own statement of support Monday morning.

Debate aftermath

On delegation-wide text chains and smaller threads, on phone calls stealing away from family vacations, House Democrats have been ricocheting off each other, repeating rumors, counseling each other through depressions and panics, spinning out daydreams of events where Biden steps aside or of ways that the party turns around and rallies to his side. At home in their districts over the holiday week, the Biden campaign spin that only insiders cared about his debate performance crashed into constituents unloading on them at July 4th parades or just at the grocery store.

Jeffries, meanwhile, was on the phone, on encrypted Signal chats. He said little, according to several colleagues who spoke to him. He listened. He absorbed. He gave members or collections of members chances to propose solutions and ways forward. He told many that he was not going to stand in their way from either sticking with Biden or breaking. He consulted with his whip, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark, and with close Biden ally Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.

Colleagues regularly use words like deliberative and methodical to describe the 53-year-old who took over for Nancy Pelosi in late 2022. In the last 10 days, they describe a man even more inscrutable and Buddha-like than normal.

“Hakeem is very thoughtful and deliberate, and we’ll work through this week together in a responsible way,” said Ohio Rep. Greg Landsman. “We’re the adults in the room who get things done. That’s how we approach our jobs every week, and this week won’t be any different. Too much is at stake.”

Two very different men who don’t know each other well

Jeffries does not have a deep or extensive relationship with Biden. A story he tells is getting a call from a blocked number during the transition three-and-a-half years ago, letting it go to voicemail, and being mortified when he realized he had inadvertently passed on a call from the president-elect.

They have not spent too much time together since, with Jeffries ascending as leader just as Democrats returned to the minority in the House and became less relevant to governing. They both see themselves as pragmatists more progressive than they get credit for from the base, but they are very different men. Jeffries’ signature event when he first got to Washington was a “Hip Hop on the Hill” fundraiser. Biden prefers Barbra Streisand and Elton John. They’re both from working-class beginnings, but in very different generations: Jeffries was born in Brooklyn just a few months before Biden won his first race, for a seat on the New Castle, Delaware, county council.

The night of the debate, Jeffries was with several of his members. One member who saw him said his frustration and disappointment were evident. He’s a politician who prepares methodically, who, in answering reporters’ questions, often slows down his cadence both as he considers the impact of each word in real time and makes sure that he doesn’t get misquoted. Biden’s going onto stage so apparently not ready for what it was and what it would lead to seemed irresponsible.

The next morning, Jeffries arrived at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Blue Dogs, the group of moderate House Democrats. He mentioned a snap poll that showed people didn’t like Donald Trump’s performance either, but made no attempt to defend Biden. He didn’t ask anyone to hold back — and they did not, though he didn’t say much there either, including when one member said that Biden was going to be a liability that the Democrats in the tightest races in the fall wouldn’t be able to manage.

But Jeffries did point out that Democrats picked up seats in 2016 even as Trump won then.

The next day in New York, at a fundraiser for House Democrats, his first question in a fireside chat on stage with former President Barack Obama was about what he called “an existential moment many of us believe, in the House, the Senate, certainly at the presidential level.”

“We’ve got to figure out how we move forward. What should we make of it?” Jeffries said. He quoted a line from the Cornerstone Baptist Church of his youth that he’d used earlier in the day, “A setback is nothing more than a setup for a comeback.”

The crowd applauded.

“How,” Jeffries asked Obama, “should we think about the opportunity for the comeback?”

Jeffries hasn’t said anything in public since — including after Biden called him last Wednesday. He didn’t discuss it with many of his colleagues, other to say that it happened. He didn’t say whether what Biden said had or hadn’t changed his mind.

And noticeably, he didn’t put out a public statement of support or pledge it privately, despite Biden’s assertion in his ABC interview on Friday of his conversations with Democratic leaders that “they all said I should stay in the race.”

What’s ahead is a “messy family conversation,” said California Rep. Jared Huffman, and “we want to keep together. He sets the tone.”

‘You can only outrun gravity so much’

In the weeks leading up to the debate, the House Democrats’ official campaign arm got back a round of polling in tight races that showed that their members were already running ahead of generic Republicans, and ahead of Biden, too. Since concerns about the president’s age have been top of voters’ minds for years, several operatives felt in the immediate aftermath of the debate, that was already baked into those numbers.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not conducted a battleground district-by-district poll since the debate. But House Democratic strategists who talked to the candidates on the cusp and their staff reiterated that their advice was to stay focused on their own races, avoid being pundits and stay away from getting sucked into national politics.

That has not been enough for many of the people whose names and jobs will be on the ballot. On principle, those members worry about their independent, truth-teller brands being undercut by sticking with Biden. On politics, they can’t see how to get reelected if Trump is running up big margins in their districts.

“There’s a gravitational force in all these races, and you can only outrun gravity so much,” said the frontline House Democrat who wants to see Biden off the ticket.

Saving his members’ jobs — and saving his own hopes of getting the speaker’s job — many Democratic members feel, may be what turns Jeffries away from Biden, if he starts to feel that the president remaining as the nominee would lead to a red wave that takes a majority within reach and turns it into a deeper minority.

“He’s like, ‘You created this mess. They have to clean up their own mess,’” said one House Democrat who has known Jeffries for years, summarizing his view of the Biden campaign. “It’s not his job to clean it up until it starts to affect his members.”

Whether the decision is to stick with Biden or step out on him, “Hakeem should have only one statement: ‘I’m your insurance policy against Donald Trump,’” said California Rep. Ro Khanna.

However Jeffries moves, many members agree that he will move with the faith and admiration among House Democrats that at this point Biden lacks. They know no matter what happens in the next few weeks, Jeffries is their future, and Biden is not. They know he keeps track of who crosses him and who backs him up. And they agree his reservoir of goodwill and trust among colleagues built up from guiding them through the peak Republican dysfunction in this Congress and February’s special election win means that whatever he says and whenever he says it, most will listen — even if they don’t like it.

“If Hakeem says, ‘Listen, I think the president is staying in, and we need to stay unified and fracturing the caucus will only make it more likely that we’ll lose the House,” that might be enough, said another House Democrat who told CNN it’s time for Biden to quit the race but has not said so publicly. “At a certain point, though, you run out of split ticket voters.”

CNN’s Eva McKend contributed to this report.

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