Washington
CNN

President Joe Biden has privately acknowledged that the next few days are critical to whether he can salvage his reelection campaign. On Tuesday, he made clear to an ally that he understands what would lead him to accept: “It just doesn’t work.”

“He sees the moment. He has clear eyes,” this person told CNN.

According to this ally, the president has no doubt what possible events in the coming weeks will ultimately lead him to admit that his efforts to make up for last week’s disastrous debate on CNN are not working.

It would be a scenario where “the polls plummet, the fundraising dries up and the interviews go badly,” they said. “He’s not blind to it.”

In response to a request for comment, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said “it is incorrect to suggest there is any willingness to end the campaign.”

In the days since Biden’s stunningly flawed debate performance, Democrats across the country have expressed deep concern. Some elected officials have even begun publicly calling on Biden to withdraw for the good of the party.

The New York Times reported separately on Wednesday that Biden acknowledged he might not be able to salvage his campaign if he doesn’t perform well in public events in the coming days. The White House and Biden’s campaign have denied that reporting.

In Tuesday’s private conversation, Biden was also “reprimanded” for “blaming himself” — not his staff — for his performance during the debate.

“He said, ‘I’ve done way too much foreign policy,’” this person said. “He said to me, ‘I’ve overdone it. I’ve traveled too much. I’ve been back and forth too much. I’ve been through too many time changes. I had a cold. That was a mistake.’”

Biden was referring to his back-to-back trips to France and Italy just before the debate, even though nearly two weeks passed between his return from Italy for the June 15 G7 meeting and the June 27 debate, according to a CNN breakdown of his schedule.

But while Biden suggested that jet lag and fatigue from his travels had been damaging, he also indicated in his call with the ally that he wanted to put the debate behind him.

And at one point in their conversation, Biden asked this person for advice — and then there was silence, the person told CNN, as the president waited for input.

The president also said at a fundraising event in Virginia on Tuesday night that it had been a bad idea to make two major foreign trips just before the debate.

During that fundraiser, Biden joked that he “almost fell asleep on stage” during last week’s debate and blamed his poor performance on his grueling travel schedule, according to pool reports.

“I decided to travel around the world a couple of times … shortly before the debate … I didn’t listen to my staff … and then I almost fell asleep on stage,” Biden said at the fundraiser. The comment was met with brief laughter from those in attendance, according to a recording of the president’s remarks.

Several reporters present in the room said they believed the phrase “fell asleep” was intended as a joke and that Biden was trying to downplay the situation in a self-deprecating manner, but they said it missed the mark.

Since the debate, Biden has endured one of the toughest stretches of his presidency, and his reelection campaign is reeling. Campaign officials have been scrambling to calm donors who were shaken by Biden’s performance. The White House announced that Biden is expected to meet with Democratic governors and congressional leaders on Wednesday, after some had demanded a meeting with the president. Some officials have been turned off by the Biden campaign’s dismissiveness of their concerns about the president’s health. On Tuesday, a Democratic congressman became the first to publicly call on Biden to withdraw from the race.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Biden’s campaign team on Wednesday, a source familiar with the conversation said.

The source described it as a “pep talk” in which Biden and Harris laid out the stakes of the election.

Biden reiterated that if you get knocked down, you get back up, a familiar saying of the past week, and said, “Let’s win this,” the source said.

Biden “acknowledged the difficult last few days and told his team unequivocally that he is running for re-election and that he is going to beat Donald Trump,” another source familiar with the call told CNN.

“I’m in this race to the end and we’re going to win, because when Democrats unite, we always win. Just like we beat Donald Trump in 2020, we’re going to beat him again in 2024,” Biden told his team, according to the source.

Harris, who has rejected calls to replace Biden, told the team she will follow Biden’s lead.

“We will not back down. We will follow the example of our president. We will fight and we will win,” Harris said, according to the source.

Biden concluded, according to the source: “There’s no one I’d rather be in this fight with than all of you. So, let’s join forces. Let’s get this done. You, me, the vice president. Together.”

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients held a less than 10-minute call with all staff to encourage his team to ignore the rumors and get on with their work despite the many questions about Biden’s candidacy, a source who was on the call said.

Keep your “head down, get things done, execute, execute, execute. Secondly, head up – there is so much to be proud of and there is so much more that we will do together under the leadership of this president,” Zients said, according to the source. “This team can do anything and don’t forget to support each other.”

Zients, who did not take questions during the call, told staff that the “strong campaign team” will focus on the reelection effort, while the White House staff should focus on doing the work of the administration, the source said.

Zients decided to hold a meeting with White House staff, in part to acknowledge the challenges of the post-debate period, a White House official said. In an earlier meeting with senior staff on Friday, Zients and senior adviser Anita Dunn discussed the president’s debate performance and the anticipated difficult period ahead, the official said.

During Wednesday’s phone call, Zients echoed the president’s words: “When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

“That’s what he does and that’s what we all have to do,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Betsy Klein, Arlette Saenz and Michael Williams contributed to this report.