Biden-Trump Debate Reveals the Presidency in Crisis

ANALYSIS: President Biden’s startling performance raised concerns not only about the electoral fortunes for Democrats this November, but also about his ability to perform his duties as president over the next five months.

President Joe Biden speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, June 27.
President Joe Biden speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, June 27. (photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has held fewer press conferences than any president in four decades. He has never granted a sit-down interview to The New York Times or The Washington Post. He rarely appears in public past 10 p.m. For three-and-a-half years, White House officials have dodged questions about his age and lack of availability.

So, when Biden appeared alarmingly frail at the first presidential debate Thursday night in Atlanta, the nation’s stress level over the election, already elevated by disapproval of both the major nominees and dark undercurrents of ugly legal battles, spiked even further. 

Biden’s startling performance raised concerns not only about the electoral fortunes for Democrats this November, but also about his ability to perform his duties as president over the next five months, including the potential damage his condition might cause the office itself. 

The Register spoke with several leading scholars and historians to assess the implications of Biden’s poor showing in Atlanta.

Until last night, Biden’s health has been something of a third rail in mainstream political discourse. Accusations of “ageism” and mean-spiritedness were made against critics, which had the effect of delaying the national reckoning over the issue. 

According to professor Jonathan Culp, chairman of the politics department at the University of Dallas, the lack of a prior good-faith conversation about Biden’s health transformed the debate from a battle of ideas into a test of Biden’s competency. In a New York Times/Siena College poll released the day before the debate, about 70% of voters said they believed the 81-year-old Biden is too old to be president again, compared to 40% who feel the same way about the 78-year-old Trump.

“In a usual debate, the goal is to rally your base and win over swing voters. In this debate, Biden’s objective was to assuage the doubts held by his base and swing voters about his competency to hold office,” Culp told the Register. “In short, Biden had to prove that he isn’t ‘too old’ to be president. And by almost any reasonable measure, he not only failed to assuage those doubts but, for a lot of people, confirmed them.” 

Even Democrats and politically partisan media figures appear to largely agree with Culp’s assessment in the wake of the debate. Words such as “horrific” and “nightmare” have been used liberally in news reports to describe Biden’s performance. 

Within minutes of the debate’s closing statements, high-ranking Democratic Party operatives such as former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod were describing the panic among Democrats and openly discussing the potential of replacing Biden as the nominee. 

For David Barrett, presidential historian and professor of political science at Villanova University, the handwringing is premature. Though he believes the debate will hurt Biden at polls in the short run at least, he cites past poor performances at presidential debates as reason to caution against overreaction. 

“Reagan in 1984 and Obama in 2012 both had rather poor first debates,” he told the Register. “But they bounced back in second debates.” 

Still, Barrett notes that Biden’s struggles are distinct: “Nixon performed rather poorly in the first debate in 1960. He was reactive, looked unshaven and sweaty. Ford bizarrely mis-spoke about Eastern Europe in 1976. But no candidate has struggled so much in debate history as Biden.”

Notable figures within the Democratic Party have made the “many successful candidates have struggled in debates” case in the immediate wake of the debate, including former President Barack Obama, who began a post in defense of Biden on X by saying: “Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know.”

For Culp, the comparison doesn’t hold. 

“Last night’s debate was historically unprecedented,” he said. “Presidential debates rarely have any lasting significant effect on election outcomes. Yesterday’s debate may be the first time that a debate performance had a crucial effect. It’s too soon to tell, of course, but prior to this debate Joe Biden was the unquestioned Democratic nominee for president and after the debate, he wasn’t. No debate has ever had that effect before.” 

In addition to diminishing his chances for reelection, Biden’s debate performance also had the effect of rattling foreign allies, particularly those who dread the return of Trump to the White House. 

Already dogged by several sprawling global crises that began and arguably worsened during his presidency, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel, Biden’s perceptible physical deterioration left many questioning who exactly is running the show in Washington. 

The Heritage Foundation’s president Kevin Roberts believes these allies are right to be concerned about the potential for an international incident while Biden is in office.

 “I worry every day about that while Joe Biden is president,” he said. “I worry about it for reasons that are outside and in his control. I think bad actors around the world are going to be emboldened by what they saw.”

Richard Dougherty, dean of the graduate politics program at the University of Dallas, echoed this concern. 

“It is important to note that the president is the sitting president, so we are not simply talking about what might happen after the November election, but what is happening now,” he told the Register. “The debate did clearly reveal to a large audience the struggles that he has, and it is hard to imagine that major policy decisions are actually being made by the president. That is troubling, for although every president has a large group of advisers, and a smaller group of intimates, the country needs the assurance that a steady hand is at the helm.”

The shocking debate performance also laid bare certain unfortunate truths about the state of the U.S. news media. 

Only days prior to the debate, The New York Times ran a report accusing conservative news organizations of trafficking in out-of-context videos known as “cheap fakes” of Biden wandering awkwardly at the Group of 7 meeting. On Friday night, the Times ran an editorial calling for Biden to bow out of the race.

“There is no way to dismiss what viewers saw with their own eyes, so now the media has to address the age question or else lose all credibility,” said Culp. “No one was in a better position to know the truth about Biden’s condition than the reporters who cover the White House beat. The contrast between their approach to the question of Biden’s age and what people saw last night tells me that we cannot trust the media to provide accurate coverage about this question and perhaps not any other question that might paint the Democratic candidate in a bad light.”

Dougherty concurred. 

“A significant portion of the media has shied away from reporting on the condition of President Biden, contentedly taking at face value comments from his advisors that behind closed doors he is vigorous and in control,” he said. “That is obviously not the case. ... There is now no hiding the clear difficulties the president is facing.”

President Joe Biden prepares to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol April 28 in Washington, D.C.

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