Biden’s Disastrous Debate Accelerates Doubts Over Candidacy

Biden’s Disastrous Debate Accelerates Doubts Over Candidacy

President Joe Biden bet that a debate with Republican Donald Trump would boost his moribund reelection campaign. His gamble failed.

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(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden bet that a debate with Republican Donald Trump would boost his moribund reelection campaign. His gamble failed.

A weary president looked every day of his 81 years. Instead of proving to voters that he had the stamina for another four year term, everything that could go wrong did. 

Biden misspoke numerous times, citing incorrect facts and figures from his first answer out of the gate. His remarks were soft-spoken, punctuated by sickly bouts of coughing, and meandering, prone to repetition. He stared into the distance as Trump delivered broadside after broadside, routinely botched scripted attacks on the former president, and froze at the end of one rambling answer.

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Democrats publicly and privately expressed alarm in the aftermath, with anger bubbling toward a candidate and campaign who have long dismissed concerns over the president’s age and acuity as overblown. It invited questions as to whether the president should remain in the race, though he told reporters later that night he intended to stay on the ticket. 

One Democratic lawmaker shortly after the debate, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president appeared a shell of his former self and that the party must have a conversation about replacing him on the ballot. Trump, who polls showed with a small but steady lead headed into the night, now appears the clear favorite to capture a second term in the White House.

“It was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden. I don’t think there’s any other way to slice it,” Kate Bedingfield, the president’s former communications director, said on CNN. “His biggest issue that he had to prove to the American people was that he had the energy and the stamina, and he didn’t do that.”

Strongest Issues

Trump was not without his own foibles, characteristically delivering responses riddled with falsehoods and exaggerations, and refused to commit to accepting the results of November’s election. But Biden repeatedly failed to take advantage, or parry attacks. 

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When asked about abortion, one of Democrats’ strongest issues, Biden pivoted to one of his weakest areas, immigration. He dramatically understated his jobs record, was dragged into a meandering fight over golf handicaps and Trump’s weight, and at one point claimed he “finally beat Medicare.”

The president has a cold, according to people familiar with the matter. 

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“The Biden team has never heard of espresso, or tea with honey and lemon,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.

A Trump victory would have seismic consequences for US trade policy, the tax system, civil rights and the nation’s relationships with allies and adversaries. Markets were already anticipating the momentum behind Trump. The dollar pushed higher against major peers as the candidates traded barbs, with the Mexican peso and Japanese yen among global currencies weakening.

Biden’s team wanted to face-off against Trump in June — the earliest in modern US political history — in order to change the race from a referendum on his presidency into a contrast with his predecessor. Instead, it was Trump, 78, who was able to put Biden on the defensive on the US’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the border crisis and inflation. He avoided the type of outbursts that bedeviled his first debate with Biden four years ago when he talked over Biden repeatedly and came across as overly aggressive.

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‘Painful to Watch’

Trump pounced when Biden stumbled.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence, and I don’t think he knows what he said either,” Trump said in response to one of Biden’s answers about the US-Mexico border.

Twelve of the 14 in a focus group of undecided voters hosted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz said they were more likely to vote for Trump after watching what they described as Biden stumbling through the debate.

Karen Kierpaul of Michigan was the only one of the dozen leaning more toward Biden, but said: “It was very painful to watch Biden tonight.”

Later in the debate, Trump’s extreme views and his false claim that he won the 2020 election got the better of him. The former president defended the Jan. 6, 2021 US Capitol and rioters and tried to claim he did not say there were good people on both sides of the White nationalist rally in Charlottesville — two of the lowest moments of his presidency. 

Biden did land punches against Trump by arguing the former president is a convicted felon who poses a threat to the US democracy. 

“You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden said of Trump.

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Nonetheless, Biden’s mission before one of his biggest audiences of the year was to reassure the public of his strength and stamina, assuage nervous Democrats who were uneasy with the president’s decision to seek reelection and bring them back into his fold. On nearly every front, the president fell short. Biden spent more than a week out of the public eye ahead of the debate preparing with a small cadre of longtime aides who have spent the past year angrily dismissing questions about the president’s mental acuity and age. 

‘Slow Start’

More than three quarters of US adults said they were concerned about Biden’s age, according to a Gallup poll released this month.

Publicly, Democratic elected officials looked to circle the wagon, with likely future presidential aspirants like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and California Governor Gavin Newsom defending his performance. 

“Absolutely, he’s our nominee. Nothing changed tonight,” Newsom said. “Quite the contrary. He won on the substance, that’s what matters at the end of the day.” 

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Vice President Kamala Harris said on CNN that “there was a slow start but it was a strong finish.” 

Biden did pick up steam about 50 minutes into the debate when he called out Trump’s past statements on seeking retribution and then later, when he spoke about Trump’s tax cuts and his handling of the deficit. Biden also tried to land blows on Republicans’ stance on Social Security and Medicare, Trump’s record with Black voters or Trump pulling out of the Paris climate accords. 

“You ever hear any president say they’re seeking retribution?” Biden said at one point. “This guy has no sense of American democracy.”

Still, Biden’s shaky delivery did him no favors.

Maria Shriver, scion of the Democratic Kennedy dynasty and one of first lady Jill Biden’s guests at this year’s State of the Union, said “tonight was heartbreaking in many ways.”

“There’s panic in the Democratic party,” she continued in a post on X. “It’s going to be a long night.” 

In the proud tradition of many who have had a rough night in Atlanta, Biden left the debate to visit a nearby Waffle House. He told reporters there that he had a sore throat, and acknowledged the perceptions of his performance.

“It’s hard to debate a liar,” Biden said.

—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs and Brett Pulley.

(Updates to include Biden post-debate comments to reporters throughout.)

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