Biden’s disastrous debate pitches his reelection bid into crisis

If Joe Biden loses November’s election, history will record that it took just 10 minutes to destroy a presidency.

It was clear a political disaster was about to unfold as soon as the 81-year-old commander in chief stiffly shuffled on stage in Atlanta to stand eight feet from ex-President Donald Trump at what may turn into the most fateful presidential debate in history.

Objectively, Biden produced the weakest performance since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon started the tradition of televised debates in 1960 — then, as on Thursday, in a television studio with no audience.

Minutes into the showdown, hosted by CNN, a full-blown Democratic panic was underway at the idea of heading into the election with such a diminished figure at the top of the ticket.

Biden’s chief debate coach, Ron Klain, famously argues that “while you can lose a debate at any time, you can only win it in the first 30 minutes.” By that standard, the president’s showing was devastating. The tone of the evening was set well before the half hour.

It is too early to say how voters will respond and whether the president can rescue himself. But Biden barely beat Trump in key battleground states in the middle of a pandemic in 2020. His approval rating was below 40% before the debate, when he was at best neck-and-neck with his rival in the polls. It would only take a few thousand voters to desert him to put Trump back in the White House.

There has been no public sign that Biden is unable to fulfill the duties of the presidency, which include tough decisions on national security. He has just returned from two grueling foreign trips, for instance. But on Thursday’s evidence, his ability to communicate with the country – and even to sell his own vision for a second term – is severely compromised.

If the debate was the president’s best chance to turn around a tight race with Trump, which has him in deep peril of losing reelection, it was a failure. Biden ended the night with the Democratic Party in crisis with serious conversations taking place behind the scenes among senior figures over whether his candidacy is now sustainable, two months before the Democratic National Convention.

The president aimed for an immediate rebound at a post-debate rally in North Carolina Friday, appearing rested, defiant and animated in what was a clear attempt to a quiet a storm of questions about whether he should shelve his reelection race.

“I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” Biden told a crowd that chanted “four more years, four more years.” The president added, “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to.” Biden went on, raising his voice,“But I know what I do know. I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job.”

“I know what millions of Americans know: When you get knocked down, you get back up.”

Biden’s much improved performance in a scripted stump speech before a friendly audience however only further exposed his failures on Thursday night when he had his best chance to counter Trump before tens of millions of television viewers.

Trump’s task on Thursday was to avoid playing into Biden’s claims that he’s “unhinged” and is therefore unfit to return to the Oval Office. He largely did so as he got out of the way while the president was damaging his own campaign. The presumptive Republican nominee’s unaccustomed restraint, however, did wear thin later in the debate.

But in one devastating moment, after yet another Biden waffle, he said: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

The ex-president didn’t avoid his own disqualifying issues. He was uncouth and divisive. He spouted outrageous falsehoods about his own presidency, his attempt to steal the last election, and sometimes lapsed into gibberish himself, especially when asked about climate change. He blatantly lied about his role in the mob attack by his supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The twice-impeached convicted felon repeatedly declined to say that he would accept the result of the 2024 election if he lost and made sweeping, vague and often illogical claims that US enemies overseas would bend to his will just because of his personality. The former president also struggled to parry Biden’s arguments that he’d slash taxes for rich Americans and leave workers struggling, and he was wobbly on policy, just as he was in the White House.

By the time the aged rivals slipped into a bitter debate about who was the best golfer, it was not hard to understand why voters have long told pollsters that they want no part of the choice they have been offered this year.

Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate at CNN's Atlanta studios on June 27, 2024. - Austin Steele/CNN
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate at CNN's Atlanta studios on June 27, 2024. - Austin Steele/CNN

Why Biden’s showing could be so consequential

But Biden has rooted his reelection in the idea that he is the last thing standing between America and a second Trump presidency that would destroy democracy and usher in an unprecedented era of American autocracy. Voters who take him at his word could not help but be alarmed at his abject debate showing.

Biden’s voice was weak, at times reduced to a whisper. Early on, the president’s answers drifted into incoherence. He missed openings to jab Trump on abortion — the top Democratic talking point — and meandered into highlighting his own biggest political liability, immigration. “We finally beat Medicare,” Biden said at one point, lapsing into confused silence. It was the kind of debate gaffe that Democrats had hoped to avoid. Worse, while Trump spoke, Biden often watched, his mouth gaping open, exacerbating an impression of a president cruelly diminished. His bravura battering of Trump in a debate four years ago was a distant memory.

To see a president struggle before millions of people watching on television all around the world was tough to see. As a matter of humanity, the personification of the ravages of age that await everyone was painful. Biden’s campaign revealed during the debate that he had been suffering from a cold. But by that time, the damage had already been done.

Biden had entered the debate facing a somber test — to prove to the majority of Americans who believe he is too old to serve that he is vital, energetic and up to fulfilling his duties in a second term that would end when he is 86. Instead, the president ended up validating those fears and potentially convincing many more voters that his faculties have decayed. The stumbling performance raised questions about the strategic choice Biden’s campaign made in pushing for a debate with Trump. It also completely undercut attempts by the White House and the campaign to talk up Biden’s heartiness behind the scenes. Memories of the president’s barnstorming State of the Union address in March, when he put many fears about his age to rest, have now been obliterated.

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Often, presidential debates are remembered for visual moments that become embedded in the collective public consciousness in subsequent days. Troublingly for Biden, a viewer only paying attention to visual clues would surely have formed the impression that Trump was the more robust personality. And the history of presidential elections suggests that the candidate who seems strong often beats the one who is weak.

“It’s painful. I love Joe Biden,” said Van Jones, a CNN political commentator. “He’s a good man, he loves his country, he’s doing the best that he can. But he had a chance … tonight to restore confidence of the country and of the base and he failed to do that. And I think there are a lot of people who are going to want to see him take a different course now.”

Vice President Kamala Harris led attempts to turn the focus away from the optics of Biden’s performance to the threat posed by his Republican opponent.

“Yes, there was a slow start, but it was a strong finish,” Harris told CNN’s Anderson Cooper following the debate. “And what became very clear through the course of the night is that Joe Biden is fighting on behalf of the American people. On substance, on policy, on performance, Joe Biden is extraordinarily strong.”

“People can debate on style points. But ultimately, this election and who is the president of the United States has to be about substance. And the contrast is clear. Look at what happened during the course of the debate. Donald Trump lied over and over and over again as he is wont to do,” she said.

Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate at CNN's Atlanta studios on June 27, 2024. - Will Lanzoni/CNN
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate at CNN's Atlanta studios on June 27, 2024. - Will Lanzoni/CNN

Biden’s best moments came too late

Harris is correct in her assessment of Trump’s cascade of untruths. And as the debate wore on, the president did seem to get a little stronger. He was especially animated when he spoke about Trump’s threat to democracy. He was scathing about the ex-president’s failure to admit defeat four years ago. “You can’t stand the loss,” Biden said. “Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.” And in an extraordinary moment in a debate before millions of television viewers, Biden highlighted Trump’s conviction in his hush money trial in New York.

“How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for molesting a woman in public? For doing a whole range of things? Of having sex with a porn star on the night – while your wife was pregnant?” Biden asked Trump. “You have the morals of an alley cat.”

The former president was found guilty last month of 34 counts of falsifying business records in his criminal hush money trial. Last year, a jury found him liable for sexual abuse in a civil defamation suit. And Trump, his adult sons and the Trump Organization lost a huge civil fraud trial, also in New York.

But the problem for Biden was that his best moments of the night came deep into the 90-minute showdown, by which time most viewers would have formed strong impressions.

And at times, he appeared unable to defend his record or effectively expose Trump’s torrent of falsehoods and distortions of his own first-term legacy. The president only briefly flashed his beaming smile, which he had effectively used to debunk Trump’s absurd arguments in their debate four years ago and when he rhetorically dismembered Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the 2012 vice presidential debate.

If the cacophony of behind-the-scenes venting by Democrats coalesces into more serious questions about Biden’s capacity, the crisis around him will deepen. But it is hard to see any easy way — apart from a decision by the president not to accept the party nomination – that there could be any change to the Democratic ticket.

And any decision to try and replace a president who has successfully run the table in Democratic nominating contests would be unprecedented in the modern age and might end up dividing the party — a step that in itself could help Trump become only the second president to win a non-consecutive second term.

There has been little effort by the Biden White House to promote Harris as the president’s heir — and she has significant political problems of her own. And no Democrat with future presidential possibilities — for instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — took the risk of challenging an incumbent who once presented himself as a bridge to the future of the party.

Biden is not the first president to have a bad debate — although his ordeal on Thursday far surpasses the misfires by Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Both those presidents bounced back the next time they got the chance on the debate stage and went on to win a second term. But while a second debate with Trump is scheduled for September, it is hard to find a tactical rationale for the ex-president to offer his rival a do-over.

One Democratic operative summed up the president’s debate for CNN’s Kasie Hunt with a word that now threatens to encapsulate his entire reelection bid unless Biden can turn the story around.

“Horrific,” the person said.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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