'There's no way out': Democrats feel powerless as 'elites' fall in line behind Biden

President Joe Biden is attempting to frame his quest to retain his candidacy as him against the “elites” in Washington.

But in interviews, rank-and-file Democrats, party chairs, battleground leaders and elected officials say Biden has it exactly backward.

All along, they say, they’ve felt deep concerns about Biden — and fielded reservations from voters, as poll after poll has demonstrated — but have felt powerless to act in the face of a White House and Democratic Party that’s been under Biden’s thumb.

“I wish I was more brave,” said one Democratic state party chair who thinks Biden should step aside. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation from the president’s camp.

“I would be crucified by them if I spoke out of line,” the chair continued. “I know when you get out of line they all of a sudden have a shift of priorities and your races, your state is no longer on the map.”

Now, they say, it’s happening again.

Even after a disastrous debate performance that was initially met with calls for him to step aside, new revelations from those around the president expressing concerns about his mental acuity and warning signs about future fundraising, one power broker after another is falling in line behind Biden — in some cases after just expressing grave doubts about him.

But by some accounts from Democrats on Tuesday, that backing felt more akin to a death march to November than a rousing backing for a party nominee.

“No one is excited,” an ally of the president said. “Expectations are very low for Biden going forward.”

Another Democratic House member put it in starker terms.

“People are very frustrated that the president appears defensive and in denial. He’s like the grandpa who refuses to give up the car keys even though it’s not safe for him to drive anymore,” the person said. “There’s also a growing resignation that, if Joe Biden insists on remaining our nominee, we will have to make the best out of a bad situation going into the most consequential presidential election in American history.”

On Sunday, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and three other congressional Democrats told colleagues on a phone call that Biden should step aside.

By Tuesday, Nadler changed his tune.

“Whether I have concerns or not is beside the point,” Nadler told reporters Tuesday. “He’s going to be our nominee, and we all have to support him.”

Another member of Congress privately expressed deep concerns with Biden and feared one more major gaffe could be catastrophic to Democrats. But the person expressed powerlessness as an individual member speaking out without leadership sticking out their necks.

“I could say something, but I’m a pragmatist. Would it have any effect? Would it have any impact? I think in the absence of leadership stepping forward — I don’t think any rank-and-file member is going to change that dynamic,” the House member said. “I fall in the category of a lot of front-liners who were staying quiet in the hopes that he was going to do the right thing. But he’s choosing to stay.”

In the 12 days since Biden froze, mumbled, trailed off and, at times, even struggled to complete a sentence at the debate against former President Donald Trump, he has been playing cleanup.

“Take the debate out of it and just look at the last couple of weeks,” said a second Democratic state party chair, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Is he going to be able to get a message out and build a narrative or will every public event be about this?”

The situation, of course, is still fluid. While Biden has doubled down on his insistence this week that he’s not going to step out of the 2024 race, there are still calls for him to do so and the situation could change.

There are fears within the party that Democratic voters will lose enthusiasm, and Biden will lose the election — with down-ballot candidates sinking with him, both state party chairs said.

“Most of the chairs I’ve talked to are scared,” the second chair said.

Some Democrats have said the president has taken too long to do damage control with his own party, allowing talk that undermines his candidacy to run rampant and dominate a race that should be focused on Trump.

One battleground Democratic organizer described a splintering party, with some holding serious doubts about not just Biden’s age, but whether he’s capable of doing the job. Others, the person said, are willing to back Biden, if only to stop the bleeding and move on.

“It feels like we’re creating a 2016 environment again, where we were pulled apart in that primary and never got back together. It’s very frustrating for us in these swing states. We have to win, we cannot lose,” the person said. “Ultimately, nobody really knows how this will be resolved. There’s no way out.”

The White House and the campaign have attempted to contain the fallout, reaching out to members of Congress, briefing governors and holding calls from the campaign and donors. Biden was also scheduled for a call with mayors Tuesday.

Some of those calls themselves prompted backlash, with some complaining they weren’t allowed an opportunity to weigh in and others saying they felt gaslighted. And his campaign insists there’s still plenty of grassroots support for the president, pointing in part to 864,000 first-time donors in the last fundraising quarter and saying that 2024 campaign volunteers signed up for three times more organizing shifts after the debate.

Biden and his team have reiterated that millions of voters have chosen him in primaries and casting him aside would discount the will of those people. Some of the Democrats countered in interviews that those voters weren’t equipped with the same information then, namely, the cognitive concerns Biden’s debate performance raised.

On Thursday, Biden is to hold a rare news conference, in what’s anticipated to be another test of his mental acuity.

On Monday, in a phone interview on MSNBC, Biden said he would not accede to the “elites” who wanted him to step aside. The president also issued a letter to Democrats in Congress declaring he would remain in the race.

“I wouldn’t be running again if I did not absolutely believe I was the best person to beat Donald Trump in 2024,” Biden wrote. “We had a Democratic nomination process and the voters have spoken clearly and decisively.”

“The question of how to move forward has been well-aired for over a week now. And it’s time for it to end. We have one job. And that is to beat Donald Trump,” Biden wrote. “Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task head only helps Trump and hurts us.”

Even that, however, caused some stir among Democrats in Congress, with some saying they never received the letter and had to read about it in the media.

“I’m still concerned, I don’t think anything he’s done has relieved any of that concern. Whether it be the North Carolina rally or the Wisconsin rally, we see all of it,” one of the Democratic congresspeople said. “I am concerned. But it is the president’s decision what to do with his legacy and moving forward, I’m gonna get behind that.”

The first party chair shared a similar resignation.

“I don’t have the power to change Biden’s mind. And so whatever is in front of me is what I’m going to roll with and do whatever I can to win,” the person said. “I just don’t think our voice matters to them.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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