A Disaster for Joe Biden (2024)

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What a disaster for Joe Biden.

In tonight’s first debate of the presidential campaign, the president appeared meandering, confused, and extremely frail. Biden’s performance was at times almost physically uncomfortable to watch and will greatly amplify the calls for him to step aside.

The question for many people before the debate was whether Biden would stumble. They didn’t have to wait long for an answer. He looked and sounded shaky from the moment he stepped somewhat creakily onstage in Atlanta. His voice came out in a faint whisper. And a few minutes in, Biden completely lost the thread while assailing Trump’s fiscal policy. He began by attacking Trump for giving tax cuts to billionaires and building up more debt than any president in any four-year period. Then he started to get bogged down:

We have a thousand trillionaires in America. I mean billionaires in America. And what’s happening? They’re in a situation where they in fact pay 8.2 percent in taxes. If they paid 24 percent, 25 percent, either one of those numbers, they’d raise $500 million—billion dollars, I should say—in a 10-year period. We’d be able to wipe out his debt, we’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do—child care, elder care, making sure we continue to strengthen our health-care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the COVID—excuse me, dealing with—look, if we finally beat Medicare …

As Biden struggled to grasp his own point, his time ran out. “Thank you, Mr. President,” the moderator, Jake Tapper, said. It felt like a mercy.

Biden also struggled on abortion, one of Democrats’ strongest lines of attack on Trump. But Biden seemed unable to compose his answer, including a bizarre aside about Laken Riley, a woman allegedly murdered by an illegal immigrant in what has become a MAGA cause célèbre.

“There’s many young women who’ve been—including the young woman who was just murdered and he went to the funeral—the idea that she was murdered by an immigrant coming in, they talk about that but here’s the deal, there’s a lot of young women being raped by their in-laws, by their spouses, brothers and sisters, it’s just ridiculous and they can do nothing about, they try to arrest them when they cross state lines,” Biden said. With some difficulty, one could discern the outlines of an answer there—Biden was talking about women seeking abortions after rape and incest in states that ban the procedure—but it was extremely hard to follow.

Biden didn’t have another moment quite that bad, but he was never good. The president struggled to finish a thought or complete a sentence. As Trump spoke, a split screen showed the president’s face looking slack and agape. Biden’s attempts at emoting incredulity instead read as confusion. He struggled to finish his answers in the allotted time.

Read: What kind of ‘psycho’ calls dead Americans ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’?

His set pieces fell flat, including an emotive one about his late son, Beau. Citing Trump’s remarks about veterans, Biden said: “My son was not a sucker, he was not a loser. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.” It would have been a great line if it had been delivered with any force. Instead, it sounded like reading off a card.

Mentioning Trump’s alleged sexual relationship with Stormy Daniels, Biden accused Trump of having “the morals of an alley cat,” which would surely have brought the house down at a debate between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson but did nothing to erase impressions that he’s too old in 2024. (In the midst of the debate, Biden staffers began telling reporters that the president is suffering from a cold.)

Biden also seemed very much to be hemmed in by the format of the debate, while Trump used questions on any subject to turn to his favorite talking points. One result was that Biden’s favored campaign theme, Trump’s threat to democracy, didn’t come up until about 40 minutes into the debate, when Tapper asked Trump about the January 6 insurrection.

“Let me tell you about January 6,” Trump replied. “On January 6 we had a great border. Nobody came through, very few. On January 6 we were energy-independent. We had the lowest taxes ever. Lowest regulations ever. On January 6 we were respected all over the world.”

Tapper tried to redirect Trump to the insurrection, and Trump responded by lying about trying to call in the National Guard. This was classic Trump—bluster and misdirection. But anyone looking for reassurance that Trump would respect the rule of law didn’t receive it. The only implication was that a vote for him is a vote for the good life, not for democracy. Trump also continued to push his lie about fraud tainting the 2020 election.

Biden was also itching to call Trump a “convicted felon,” but didn’t get there until five minutes later. Trump steamrolled him and said, nonsensically, “This man is a criminal.”

Read: Ruth Bader Biden

That projection was also classic Trump. He made little sense either, though he made little sense with bravado and seemed positively youthful and energetic next to Biden. He mostly managed to avoid coming off as the overbearing bully he often is on a debate stage, though not entirely. At one point, he used Palestinian as an apparent slur, saying of Biden, “He’s become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him, because he’s a very bad Palestinian, he’s a weak one.”

If the purpose of debates such as this one is to show voters something new about the candidates, then it didn’t work. And how could it? Both men are very well known, and very little liked, by the entire American public. Nor was there much to learn about policy: Trump doesn’t care about it, and Biden kept getting mixed up in details about it.

When the debates were announced in May, some pundits viewed it as a win for Biden, who was trailing Trump narrowly but consistently. His campaign wanted to put Trump in front of Americans early in the campaign, and remind them of the chaos and division that he produced. It was a bold gamble by the president, and he lost.

David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

A Disaster for Joe Biden (2024)
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