Timothy L. O’Brien

This Biden-Trump Debate Is What the Moment Demands

Debates are perilous for incumbent presidents, and for obvious reasons — they have everything to lose and little to gain.

Richard Nixon, overshadowed by John Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, declined to debate George McGovern as an incumbent in 1972. Gerald Ford’s foreign policy gaffe in a 1976 debate contributed to Jimmy Carter’s victory in that year’s election. Ronald Reagan subsequently upstaged Carter in a 1980 debate, fueling his electoral landslide. Reagan later seemed bewildered on a 1984 debate stage, temporarily boosting Walter Mondale’s challenge. George H.W. Bush flubbed a debate against Bill Clinton in 1992, cementing his loss. Barack Obama, under-prepared and under-engaged, endured a drubbing from Mitt Romney in 2012 that almost cost him reelection. Donald Trump lost a pair of debates to Joe Biden in 2020 on his way to a Covid-influenced election loss.

Yet Biden, an 81-year-old incumbent, is entering the fray again, squaring off with Trump, a 78-year-old anarchist, Thursday night in Atlanta. Like presidents who preceded him, Biden will walk a tightrope.

So why take that risk? Because it’s worth it.

Biden is wise to gamble on debates with Trump, for reasons that both echo well beyond him and are grounded in his own particular electoral challenges and shortcomings. The 2024 race is as momentous and consequential as the 1800, 1860 and 1932 elections. The American experiment is at stake, and Biden, while an imperfect flag-bearer, must go all in.

Biden may have been best suited to a single term, after proving to be the only candidate capable of saving the country from Trump in 2020. But hubris and ego have traveled with him throughout his political career, as they do with most who aspire to the presidency. He also orbited the White House during his decades in the Senate and three earlier, ill-fated presidential bids. And he had proximity to its magnetism and power while serving as Obama’s vice president for eight years. All of that conspired against the idea that a single tour would have sated him once he finally reached the Oval Office in 2020.

After all, the 2024 election isn’t, in any way imaginable, a traditional contest between a Democrat and a Republican, however much GOP loyalists or anyone else deluding themselves might want to frame it as such.

The slog that begins with Thursday’s debate is an existential battle. It features a well-meaning and rational geezer who has populated his administration with highly competent, proven and successful advisers capable of sizing up and embracing the world’s complexities, promises and dangers. Biden faces an unhinged and addled geezer who fancies flame-throwing and division.

The sliver of independent and swing voters who will decide the 2024 election may not have fully digested that scenario, of course. Unfortunately, it might require experiencing another round of Trump in the White House, actually starving them of civil rights while unspooling the world’s most dynamic economy and using the law and military as playthings, before they fully absorb his specific malice.

For tens of millions of people, the calculus currently driving their views of the distinction between Biden and Trump doesn’t involve policy or character but simply boils down to vitality. Biden, they argue, appears older and less coherent than Trump, even though they are only three years apart in age. Biden certainly looks every bit the octogenarian, walks with a stiff shuffle and can be mealy-mouthed and ponderous when he speaks. He really is old, and it’s a limitation for voters unsettled by the prospect of Vice President Kamala Harris succeeding him should he die in office.

Still, Trump is hardly a better, more sprightly senior. Trump is more bowed over than he used to be when he walks, and his speech and attention span have noticeably degraded over the last eight years.

While one debate won’t make the vitality issue disappear for Biden, the most efficient and direct way for him to start burying that myth is to put himself side-by-side with Trump so voters can comparison shop. Biden is entering the debate ring unusually early because this is the forum the moment demands, and he and his campaign team know it.

Trump is the lesser man and there’s a good chance the debates will show it, a risk his campaign also believes is necessary to take. Trump has never been a sophisticated thinker, doesn’t read books, is poor at basic math and his instincts are almost uniformly predatory rather than strategic.

In fact, “strategy” isn’t a word that generally belongs in any analysis of Trump’s actions.

Thursday’s debate is being staged in a way that doesn’t play well to the hooliganism Trump has deployed to his advantage in previous debates. There won’t be a live audience and the microphone will be silenced when a candidate isn’t speaking. Trump may feel straight-jacketed by the format, draining the modicum of composure he typically brings to these events.