Biden Needed to Focus the Debate on Trump and Failed

Donald Trump And Joe Biden Participate In First Presidential Debate

Joe Biden had a very clear prime objective in his first debate with Donald Trump in Atlanta: to shift the focus of persuadable voters from his own unpopular performance in office to the terrible alternative offered by his predecessor. That’s actually been the grand strategic goal of his entire reelection campaign, as one might expect of a president whose job approval rating is stubbornly hovering around 40 percent, and who has been steadily if narrowly trailing in most of the polls. Trump has certainly given Biden the raw material for a hair-raising attack on his Republican opponent, given his new status as a convicted felon, his horrific misconduct on January 6, his shaky handling of Covid, and his extremist agenda for a second term. And in the debate itself, Trump was frequently and typically rambling and even incoherent, on issues ranging from abortion to crime to the Middle East and Ukraine. Even on issues that favored him, the 45th president overplayed his hand, raving about migrant crime as though every American is cowering in fear.

But it didn’t matter, because Biden showed up for the debate with a voice and an appearance and a manner that reinforced fears that this octogenarian is too old and feeble to serve a second term. His most effective moments of anger at Trump’s serial lies often bled into stalled sentences and flubbed phrases. Even the most sympathetic viewers had to be riveted by concerns for the president’s condition, temporary though it may have been. We’re accustomed to seeing Trump lose the thread of his own arguments. It was shocking to see Biden come across little better.

So what should have been a post-debate discussion of how well Biden did in defending his record and reminding viewers of Trump’s failures may instead be overtaken by more panicky talk about Democrats dumping their presumptive nominee or Biden himself “stepping aside.” The public focus won’t be on Trump’s continuing struggles with the law, the truth, and his own demons, but on the embattled incumbent.

It was at the very best a lost opportunity, but unless Biden quickly reassures his own party and the country that his debate performance was a hiccup, he’s going to have an uphill climb in the weeks ahead, before getting another chance to debate Trump in September. The Republican nominee ended the evening by dodging a direct question about his willingness to accept the 2024 election results. It should have represented a concern that lingered in the minds of viewers as they digested this strange encounter. Instead they have to wonder: is Joe truly up to this terrible fight?

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