Biden fails to ease concerns about his age in debate with Trump

In a duel full of personal attacks, the Republican stormed the president with hoaxes and lies, while the Democrat was unable to cope between his coughing and lapses in which he appeared to go blank for a few seconds

Debate presidencial en Estados Unidos
Donald Trump and Joe Biden, during a moment of the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections, in Atlanta.Brian Snyder (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.” That was perhaps the moment Donald Trump established himself as the winner of tonight’s debate, while Joe Biden appeared hesitant, stuttering, with his voice shaken and even blanking for a few seconds during various questions. If the president was trying to demonstrate that his age, 81 years old, should not worry voters, he failed in the attempt. The two candidates engaged in harsh personal attacks, but Trump politely and surprisingly stuck to his turn to speak and it was Biden who launched into insults, calling Trump a “sucker and a loser.” Although the former president resorted again and again to hoaxes of all kinds, he delivered his messages in an apparently more effective way. He won by a landslide in terms of form, so the substance of the arguments took a backseat.

Trump, 78, attacked Biden on immigration, foreign policy and the economy. Biden went on the attack with abortion, with the risks to democracy a Trump presidency would pose, and with the fact that Trump is “a convicted felon.” Both gave the other the label of having been the “worst president in the history” of the United States. They didn’t even shake hands at the beginning of the night. The two disqualified each other as unfit to occupy the White House, though one of the two will do so after the elections on November 5.

It was Biden who opened the debate by answering a question about the economy. It was immediately evident that his voice was shaken: he was coughing to clear his throat but the hoarseness did not disappear. The president also seemed to have a very rehearsed speech, but he began to speak at full speed, making it difficult to understand his arguments. Trump, on the other hand, repeated his simple, direct and apocalyptic messages, often demagogic or loaded with hoaxes, which Biden was barely able to refute effectively. Furthermore, the former president showed restraint in his manners, never interrupting his rival, partly knowing that his microphone would be closed when it was not his turn. That also made the debate somewhat boring and lacking rhythm.

‘You are a sucker and a loser’

The president launched the most direct attacks against his rival. He brought up a report — which Trump holds is false — claiming that Trump called the fallen in combat at Arlington Cemetery “suckers and losers.” The president recalled that his son Beau died after serving in Iraq (he did so from a brain tumor, which Biden attributes to toxic exposure during that time). And he said, “My son was not a loser. You’re a sucker and a loser.” It seemed rehearsed and didn’t have the effect of showing a forceful president, which is perhaps what he intended, unlike the “Will you shut up, man?” that worked so well for him in 2020.

Trump said that when he says that his presidency is going to be about revenge, he means that winning is going to be his revenge and that he will not go after his predecessor if he returns to the White House. “Joe could be a convicted felon with all the things he’s done,” he said. “This man is a felon. This man is lucky. He’s lucky. I didn’t do anything wrong. We have a rigged, disgusting system. I did nothing wrong,” Trump said, exasperating his rival.

Biden countered: “The crimes he’s still charged with, and think of all the civil penalties he has. How many billions of dollars do you owe in civil penalties for molesting a woman in public, for doing a whole range of things, for having sex with a porn star while your wife was pregnant? What are you talking about? You have the morals of an alley cat,” Biden spat at him. Trump’s wife, Melania Trump, did not accompany her husband in Atlanta, unlike Jill Biden, who stood by the president.

“I did not have sex with a porn star,” Trump said, a phrase one would not expect to hear in a presidential debate. And regarding his felonies, he shot back: “When you talk about a convicted felon, [your] son is a convicted felon at a very high level,” he said, referring to Hunter Biden.

On abortion, Trump used attack as his best defense, asserting that Democrats defend abortion of unborn or even newborn children. “We are not for late-term abortion. Period. Period, period, period, period,” he said, putting himself on the defensive on one of the issues with which Democrats hope to mobilize their electorate.

Foreign policy

The former president also entered the fight at other times. “Our veterans can’t stand this guy,” he said. “He’s the worst commander in chief in our history.” He reiterated his thesis that the Ukraine invasion and Hamas attack happened because other countries “don’t respect” Biden and that it would have never happened had he been president. “If we had a real president, a president who knew that Putin respected him, he would never have invaded Ukraine,” Trump said. He sharply criticized again and again the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as the most “disgraceful situation in history.”

Asked how to resolve the war between Israel and Hamas, Biden stressed that his administration had already presented a plan to end the conflict with a cease-fire and the return of all hostages held in the Gaza Strip. “Hamas is the only one that wants to continue this war,” the Democrat noted. “Hamas cannot continue to exist. They have to be eliminated,” he added. Trump countered that Israel is the one who wants to continue the war and that they should take it “to the end.” “Let them finish the job. [Biden] has become a Palestinian, but the Palestinians don’t like him because he’s a weak Palestinian.”

At several points in the debate, Trump attacked Biden on immigration. He said that migrants coming into the country illegally are staying in “luxury hotels” while veterans are on the street, even though that is not true. He also reiterated his hoaxes that immigrants are arriving from “mental institutions” and “insane asylums” and are spreading crime across the country in what he has dubbed “Biden migrant crime.”

When Trump was asked about the assault on the Capitol, he assured that he had nothing to do with what happened that day when a mob of his supporters stormed Congress. “On January 6 we had a great border, energy, liberty, the lowest inflation rate in the world, and we were respected around the world,” he said. He also insisted on the lie that what took place on January 6 was a “peaceful protest” by patriots.

Biden coughed again as he began his two-minute conclusion, appearing to be short of breath, and stuttered as he did throughout the night. His closing argument fell flat for the most part. Trump, for his part, returned to foreign policy, immigration, and arguing that his presidency was a success.

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