US election 2024: Debate 'a disaster for Joe Biden' – DW – 06/28/2024 (2024)

It was the first debate between a current and a former US president, and it was a doozy. Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump met in Atlanta Thursday night local time, more than four months ahead of the 2024 US presidential election, and discussed immigration, the economy and a host of other issues.

One of the biggest takeaways: The Democrats are in trouble. From the very start, Biden's voice sounded brittle, which several campaign sources after the debate attributed to a cold. This would normally not be a huge deal, normally, it made 81-year-old Biden, whose age has been a major point of contention throughout the campaign, seem extra frail.

"I would've leaked the fact that he had a cough,"J. Miles Coleman, election analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told DW. "Had [Biden's team] got that out ahead of time, it may have been baked into some people's expectations, and they would have judged him a little kinder or lighter."

US election 2024: Debate 'a disaster for Joe Biden' – DW – 06/28/2024 (1)

Biden couldn't prove he's 'fit for office'

Biden's reviews after the debate weren't kind, and not just because of his hoarseness. The audience didn't need Trump to point out, as he occasionally did, that a number of Biden's rambling sentences didn't make sense.

For voters who are firmly in the Democratic or the "never Trump" camp, a TV debate like this isn't likely to make a big difference. But for those who haven't yet made up their minds, debates are a chance to hear from both candidates on crucial issues ― and see how they carry themselves. Ahead of the event on Thursday, two major questions were whether Biden would be agile enough to wipe out any concerns about his age, and whether Trump would be able to behave presidentially.

Biden definitely didn't meet this goal, experts say.

"There is nothing to sugarcoat here: This debate was a disaster for Joe Biden," said Ines Pohl, bureau chief of DW's Washington D.C. studio. "The main objective for Biden tonight was to demonstrate that he is fit for office, but he failed miserably."

David Axelrod, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama until 2011, said on CNN that Biden failed to give an energetic impression and even seemed a little disoriented at times. Coleman also said that while Trump, who is 78,is only a few years younger than Biden, he seemed a decade younger than the current president.

Trump refuses to answer questions

The former president fared better in achieving his goal, appearing presidential. Unlike during his first debate against Biden in 2020, he did not constantly interrupt his opponent ― it probably helped that when it wasn't a candidate's turn to talk, his microphone was switched off. But the most unpresidential behavior of the night also came from Biden, not Trump, who poked fun of the Republican candidate's weight.

US election 2024: Debate 'a disaster for Joe Biden' – DW – 06/28/2024 (2)

Trump did ignore the moderators' prompts a number of times. Instead of replying to questions about childcare or his age, Trump returned to his favorite subject again and again: How irregular immigrants who managed to come into the US because of Biden's policy would destroy the country.

"He sees sticking to the topic of a question as basically optional," election analyst Coleman said. "Overall, he did not get much pushback from the moderators."

Trump also blatantly lied more than once during the debate. To name one example regarding his favorite subject, he claimed that under his presidency, the US border was the safest "in the history of our country." But irregular migration into the US was higher during Trump's term than during either of Barack Obama's terms, according to fact checkers at the Poynter Institute.

Trump cagey about accepting election results

In one of the debate's key moments, Trump also refused to say whether he would accept the results of the upcoming election, no matter who won.

The question was a reminder of what happened after the last election. In 2020, Trump refused to accept his lossto Biden and claimed the Democrats had manipulated results. He stuck to his narrative of the stolen election even after recounts and court decisions had disproven it. That attitude played a part in encouraging right-wing Trump supporters to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021in an attempt to disrupt the democratic transfer of power.

After deflecting twice during the debate, Trump finally said he would accept the 2024 election results if it was a "fair and legal and good election," without specifying what that meant.

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Democrats 'in a state of panic'

Biden's generally confused performance meant he failed to make strong points even on topics that should've been a homerun for the Democrat, like attacking Trump over his criminal convictions or presenting himself as a champion of reproductive rights. His promise to reinstate the nation-wide constitutional right to abortion, which the Supreme Court rescinded in 2022 with the votes of three conservative Trump-appointed justices, didn't really land because of his lackluster delivery.

Immediately after the debate ended, there was talk of whether the Democrats could still somehow nominate a different candidate to run for president before or at the Democratic National Convention in August. CNN reporters said they had heard "concern" about Biden as the candidate from Democratic politicians, without naming names.

Ines Pohl, who also covered the 2016 and 2020 elections for DW, said that Biden's sub-par performance at the debate "sparked discussions on how the Democratic Party can prevent Biden from running again." One way to do this would be opening up the convention for delegates to elect a different candidate. That would be highly unusual, looking at the past few decades of US politics.

But these aren't usual times, says Pohl: "The Democrats are in a state of panic."

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

US election 2024: Debate 'a disaster for Joe Biden' – DW – 06/28/2024 (2024)

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