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Joe Biden’s Best Chance to Shake up the Race
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By The New York Times
Published 1 month ago on
June 18, 2024

The 2020 debates highlighted Trump's accurate vaccine prediction and subsequent bipartisan vaccine rollout, setting a different stage for the upcoming 2024 debate where Biden must prove his capabilities as an incumbent. (AP/Andrew Medichini)

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To rewatch the two debates of the presidential campaign in 2020—an undertaking no kind person would recommend—is to encounter, amid the insults, two rather poignant moments. In each debate Donald Trump, then president, predicted that vaccines against covid-19 would be available by the end of 2020. Each time, moderators confronted him with his own advisers’ doubts, while his rival, Joe Biden, called him a fantasist if not a liar. “There’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year,” Mr. Biden scoffed in the second debate, on October 22nd.

What if They Applauded Each Other?

In fact, in what in an alternative political universe might shine as a model of public service by successive administrations, Mr. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed supplied vaccines in December, and President Joe Biden’s programme to distribute them delivered 200m vaccinations before May 2021. How different might American attitudes be about their politics and government if each president was able to applaud the work of the other?

But, of course, polarising politics militate against such affirming acts, and when it comes to vaccines these days Mr. Trump cannot even applaud himself, usually his favourite form of exercise. Back then, not only was he pro-vaccine, he could also still refer to Anthony Fauci, then the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and now a bogeyman of the right, as a “good person”, as he put it in the second debate. He also took credit for subsidies being provided to buy electric cars.

Times and politics change. Every American presidential debate, viewed again years later, reveals itself as a time capsule packed with relics of the given moment’s controversies, rhetorical fashions and political positions, each of which, to viewers conscious of how history subsequently unspooled, might seem prophetic or wrongheaded. Even the debates of just four years ago are revelatory of a different America, simultaneously locked down by the pandemic and convulsed by protests over racial injustice. Those subjects dominated the questioning. Although crises abroad would turn out to buffet the next administration, the candidates were barely asked about foreign policy. With the exception of an exchange over whether Iran, like Russia, might be interfering in the election, the Middle East did not come up.

Biden and Trump Square Off

When Mr Biden and Mr Trump square off for the first time this election season, on June 27th, the tableau will be drearily familiar. Mr Trump will accompany himself on his invisible accordion, pushing his palms toward each other and then pulling them apart to emphasise his points. Mr Biden will look into the camera and occasionally point at the viewer in the hope of connecting directly. Yet the dynamic will be very different. Mr Biden sought this debate, one of the earliest to be held in the modern era. That is a sign he is trying to shake up a race that has been stuck in the polls for months, with Mr Trump holding a small lead. (Indeed, Mr Trump may yet conclude that Mr Biden has more to gain than he does from debating, and find a reason to back out.) In 2020 Mr Biden consistently led by wide margins, including in swing states, though polls understated Mr. Trump’s eventual, actual support.

This time, Mr Biden also bears the burden of incumbency. Four years ago Mr. Trump, glowering and frustrated, was on defense over not just his management of the pandemic and race relations (he insisted he had done more for black Americans than anyone with the “possible exception” of Abraham Lincoln) but even over his signature issue, controlling immigration. Mr Trump was pressed by a moderator, and prosecuted by Mr Biden, for having separated children from their parents at the border. Mr Trump reacted partly by trying to turn Mr Biden into the incumbent, accusing him of being ineffective and cruel as Barack Obama’s vice-president. When questioned on immigration, for example, he accused Mr Biden of confining children first. “He did nothing except build cages to keep children in,” Mr Trump said. Mr Trump’s other frequent deflection-and-attack was that Mr Biden was corrupt.

It is an axiom of politics—and another hurdle for Mr Biden—that incumbents do poorly in their first debate because they have grown unaccustomed to challenge. This seemed particularly true of Mr Trump: in the first debate he interrupted so often that the moderator, Chris Wallace, then of Fox News, accused him of violating his own campaign’s debate commitments. “He never keeps his word,” Mr Biden interjected deftly. Often incoherent in his answers, Mr. Trump was carried along by his forcefulness. But polls suggested most viewers thought he lost both debates.

MAGAmouth

This time, despite or maybe partly because of his felony convictions, Mr. Trump will be in his comfortable posture of insurgent and pitchman, attacking Mr. Biden’s job performance and spinning visions of the ecstasies America would enjoy under his own leadership. Polls show voters already remember Mr Trump’s presidency more fondly than they felt about it at the time. Mr. Biden’s challenge will be to remind them why they voted Mr. Trump out.

And all viewers will be asking: is Mr. Biden still up to it? They will find out, live. Watching those 2020 debates means reckoning with the reality that Mr. Biden is not the relatively agile speaker he was in 2020, much less the happy warrior of the vice-presidential debate in 2012, whose grinning, slashing attacks made the youthful Republican candidate, Paul Ryan, look callow. Mr Biden speaks more softly and moves more stiffly now. He smiles less readily. A habit he developed to cope with his stutter—squeezing his eyes shut, apparently to marshal not his thoughts but his elocution—has become more pronounced. None of that necessarily means he is not up to the job. And yet never in the history of American politics have one man’s debate skills mattered more.

This article originally appeared in The Economist.


Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited, 2024
Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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