Anne Sandager
3 weeks ago

Is it Wise for Biden to Debate Trump?

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he would agree to two TV debates against presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Will he live to regret it?
US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House. July 11, 2022, Washington, USA. — Photo by
US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House. July 11, 2022, Washington, USA. — Photo by

In the short announcement published on Youtube, Biden took a few punches at his predecessor saying, “I hear you are free on Wednesdays” seemingly referencing Trump’s ongoing legal proceedings in New York.

A few hours later, networks CNN and ABC could confirm that Biden and Trump had agreed to two debates on June 27th and September 10th. Trump then took to Truth Social to share that he had accepted an additional invitation to debate the president on Fox News on October 2nd, but that has been rejected by the Biden camp.  

Until now, Biden has been keeping voters guessing as to whether he would participate in any debates at all. TV matchups have historically been an arena well-suited for Trump, his confrontational speech style and ability to rattle up an audience. I imagine Biden’s team needed a good think before pushing the more soft-spoken President into the fire pit. 

But Trump has been playing by his own rules during the primary season skipping debates against his fellow Republican candidates. That has opened a door for the president to make a few game changes himself. 

Biden agreed to the debates on two conditions: they would take place before early voting begins, and no audiences. He also chose to bypass the invitations from the Nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, who has organized presidential debates since 1988.  In 2020, the Commission received several complaints about the ‘chaotic’ state of debates, which ultimately required mics to be turned off to control Biden and Trump.

For team Biden, the debate requirements are a way to seize some measure of control. Having the match-up be audience-free will make it harder for Trump to get away with bombastic statements, unchecked. Presumably, it will also be easier for moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, CNN, to uphold time limits and keep speakers on topic. 

Still, having the President go on stage is a risk. Arguably Biden has way more to lose than to win by going up against Trump. However, this is his biggest opportunity to prove his (cognitive) capabilities free from unflattering online compilations. Biden’s age and health remains the biggest concern to voters. Public appearances are the best way to prove them wrong. 

I think he will do a decent job at it. The State of the Union did inspire some measure of confidence. As an additional weapon, the Biden campaign has hired the José Mourinho of presidential debates, Ron Klaine, to help him prepare. Mr. Klain, who was the President’s former chief of staff before joining Airbnb as Chief Legal Officer, is taking a break from his day-job to aid the President. He was also a key component in Biden’s public appearances in 2020. 

The debate is a necessary box to tick for Biden, but let me warn against those who try to exaggerate the importance of it. While I am sure to devour every second of the June debate, the modern voter is less generous with their time. Hour-long TV-formats are ill-suited for the decreasing attention spans and growing political apathy of today’s electorate. For those who actually tune in, I doubt many will be persuaded to vote differently. Political affiliation is usually the best predictor of whom voters believe ‘won’ the debate -  an effect which will supercharge in the already hyper-polarized 2024 race. It doesn’t help that the debate is airing on CNN. Republican voters might skip watching all together. 

Finally, the significance of the Biden-Trump match shouldn’t be exaggerated because… IT’S IN JUNE! Five months before the election, that’s a lifetime in Washington. In the meantime, a lot can happen to take the spotlight, particularly, with the ‘hush-money’ case wrapping up. 

And yes, another debate is scheduled for September, but the viability of that arrangement remains questionable. When the first debate is over, both campaigns will run some numbers, and if they are unsatisfied with the voter response to the debate, they can easily pull the plug on the next one. They can blame the format or claim that some arbitrary condition hasn’t been met. It really doesn’t matter. 

With both candidates reinventing the traditional norms of presidential campaigns, no one would bat an eye if they sacrificed debates too. 


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