Jill Biden rejects calls for president to step aside at rally near Georgia’s largest military base

First lady Jill Biden speaks to supporters in Columbus on Monday as part of a three-stop swing in battleground states to launch Veterans and Military Families for Biden-Harris. (Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder)

First lady Jill Biden rallied Democrats in a west Georgia community that’s home to one of the country’s largest military bases Monday as the Biden-Harris campaign works to tamp down concerns after President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance in Atlanta more than a week ago.

The first lady, who is one of the president’s fiercest surrogates, hit the campaign trail with a three-stop swing through battleground states as the president ramped up his efforts to firmly reject calls for him to bow out of the race.

The trio of events was part of the campaign’s launch of Veterans and Military Families for Biden-Harris. Fort Moore, formerly Fort Benning, is near Columbus.

And while the rally was focused on Biden’s record supporting the military, such as the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act, which expanded health care eligibility, there was no avoiding the ongoing fallout from the CNN debate.

“That 90 minutes means nothing. You don’t define a president in 90 minutes,” Gloria Tyson, U.S. Army veteran and owner of Kidz.com Child Development Center, said to the crowd as she introduced the first lady in Columbus.  

Monday brought a string of more developments just weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where the party is set to officially nominate Biden. The day started with the president telling congressional Democrats he would not step aside despite mounting concerns, and he also called into MSNBC’s Morning Joe and vowed to stay in the race. “I am not going anywhere,” Biden said.

But by the afternoon, Biden’s press secretary was caught in a testy exchange with reporters over the president’s health.

“For all the talk out there about this race, Joe has made it clear that he’s all in,” Jill Biden said to the crowd, which began to chant “four more years.”

“That’s the decision that he’s made, and just as he has always supported my career, I’m all in too,” she said inside the Bibb Mill Event Center, which is a century-old mill-turned-event venue that sits alongside the Chattahoochee River. “I know you are too, or you wouldn’t be here today.” 

The Bidens have also leaned into their personal story as a military family. Biden’s son Beau Biden, a veteran, suffered from a rare form of brain cancer and died in May 2015, years after being deployed to Iraq. 

In Georgia, Democrats have largely stuck with Biden.

State Sen. Ed Harbison, who is a Columbus Democrat who joined the first lady on stage Monday night, said Democrats who are questioning whether Biden should be the nominee are losing sight of the goal.  

“To those people who have concerns about it, I would just like to reassure them to get over it, get focused and get going,” Harbison said before Monday’s rally. “It’s too late to do anything that would be a drastic change like that. That’s just impractical.”

“Let’s go ahead, get it done and get moving. Get over it. One debate does not a campaign make,” he said.

Former Georgia Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux is an example of the rare Georgia Democrat who has said Biden should step aside. But others have voiced unease with the trajectory of the 2024 presidential election with Biden at the top of the ticket.

Stacy Richardson, who lives in Pine Mountain, made the short trek Monday to Columbus in search of reassurance after she said Biden’s debate performance left her nervous and wondering whether that kind of episode could happen at any time.

Richardson said she admires Biden and the accomplishments of his presidency and long career in public service, but as she waited for the first lady to take the stage, Richardson said she was not convinced Biden was the best candidate to face former President Donald Trump in November.

“I don’t want to write him off,” Richardson said. “I’d like to see a little more, maybe a couple more interviews that are unscripted, a couple more appearances without a teleprompter and things that are a little more challenging.”

She said she would also like to see the campaign address the president’s health “head on.”

“I feel bad because I totally appreciate what his presidency did, and I believe in all that. He accomplished so much. I’m just really worried about the alternative,” she said.

Biden narrowly won Georgia in 2020 by about 12,000 votes, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here in three decades and cementing the state’s battleground status. Polling has so far given Trump a slight edge in Georgia.

“For me, I feel like it’s so important to have someone in that office who is honest, and I think he’s honest,” state Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Junction City Democrat, said of Biden.

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.