History has its eyes on you

Takeaways from the historic Trump–Biden Presidential debate.

The first presidential debate between US President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election, which was held on Thursday night on CNN, marked a historic first: the first-ever presidential debate between a sitting president and a former president. This unprecedented event featured a contentious and highly personal showdown, reflecting the deep political and personal divisions between the two candidates.

Age and performance

Biden, at 81 years old, struggled vocally and at times appeared unable to articulate his points clearly, in stark contrast to Trump, who is only three years and seven months younger. This physical and verbal disparity was a key theme throughout the night. Trump capitalised on Biden’s faltering moments without appearing overtly mocking, a strategic shift from his more aggressive debate style in 2020.

Critical issues take centre stage

In addition to age and cognitive performance, the debate highlighted a range of critical topics:

Abortion: Expected to be a strong point for Biden, given recent Supreme Court decisions favoring abortion rights, his performance faltered. Biden’s explanations were muddled, providing Trump an opening to steer the conversation toward immigration-related crimes.

Immigration: Biden stumbled while discussing border security, allowing Trump to criticise his policies and blame him for increased crime by undocumented immigrants. Trump’s broad and severe critiques were coupled with Biden’s defensive and, at times, unclear responses.

Foreign Policy: Trump blamed Biden for a range of global issues, from the withdrawal from Afghanistan to the war in Ukraine. Biden countered by emphasising the importance of NATO and maintaining strong international alliances, though his arguments were often overshadowed by Trump’s relentless attacks.

Economy: While both candidates attributed recent economic challenges to the pandemic, each candidate blamed the other, with Biden criticising Trump’s initial handling of Covid-19 and Trump claiming his administration had been on the verge of economic recovery before the pandemic struck.

Personal attacks and defences

As expected, the debate took a highly personal turn, with Biden highlighting Trump’s criminal convictions and Trump responding by invoking Hunter Biden’s legal troubles. Biden also directly accused Trump of personal misconduct, which Trump deflected with less aggression than anticipated.

Biden’s struggles and missed opportunities

Biden’s performance did little to dispel concerns about his age and vitality. He struggled with statistics and policy details, missing several opportunities to effectively counter Trump’s points. His prepared one-liners and attacks often fell flat, failing to convey a strong or coherent message.

Trump’s strategy

In a surprising turn of events, Trump adopted a less confrontational approach compared to previous debates. While he seized on Biden’s errors, he refrained from constant interruptions, likely aiming to contrast his behaviour with Biden’s difficulties. This strategy might have been intended to project a more composed image following the chaotic debates of 2020.

Impact and looking forward

The debate left many Democratic supporters questioning the decision to support Biden for a second term without any significant opposition. With the next debate scheduled for 10th September, both candidates will have another opportunity to sway voters. Biden will need to address his vulnerabilities more effectively, while Trump will likely continue his strategy of highlighting Biden’s shortcomings and presenting himself as a stronger alternative.

In addition to setting a precedent, last night’s debate set the stage for an intense and closely watched election season, highlighting the stark contrasts in style, policy, and personal conduct between the two candidates. As the campaign progresses, one thing is certain: both Biden and Trump will need to refine their strategies to address their respective weaknesses and capitalise on their strengths.

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