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26 June 2024

Biden and Trump’s biggest debate challenge? Don’t look old or crazy

America’s unenviable choice is about to get real.   

By Katie Stallard

For much of the last week, Joe Biden has been holed up at Camp David, the secluded retreat in the wooded hills of northern Maryland that has served as a refuge for every president since Franklin Roosevelt. (Although apparently Donald Trump preferred the palm trees and gold wannabe dictator chic of his Mar-A-Lago clubhouse in Florida.)  

At Camp David, the 81-year-old president is hunkered down with his top advisers, strategising and rehearsing, ahead of the most important debate of his political career as he prepares to take on Trump in a prime-time showdown on Thursday night. An aircraft hangar has been transformed into a replica debate stage, with Biden’s lawyer, Bob Bauer, playing Trump as they game out potential comebacks and counterattacks.  

There are numerous unenviable conundrums to navigate: how to deal with a bulldozer of an opponent who is perfectly comfortable lying; how to talk up Biden’s economic record at a time when many Americans aren’t feeling the benefits; how to explain his continued support for Israel despite the ongoing atrocities in Gaza. But the biggest challenge for Biden will be how to not look old.  

During his state of the union address in March, Biden’s strategy seemed to be demonstrating his vigour by turning the volume up to 11. He delivered the 67-minute address in something close to a yell, which was undeniably an impressive physical feat but became hard to watch. This approach would be even more jarring in the comparatively intimate setting of the CNN studio in Atlanta, Georgia, where the debate will take place without a live audience to jeer or applaud. Biden needs to find a tone that answers the legitimate concerns about his age – he will be 86 at the end of his next term if he wins this election – without descending into a belligerent shouting match with Trump. 

This is because on the other side of the stage, Trump’s main challenge will be to not look crazy. The Biden team’s enduring hope is that once voters understand the choice that is on offer in this election and the true extent of the threat posed to American democracy by Trump, then they will rally behind their man. This debate is their first real chance to illustrate that choice since 2020. Team Biden wants the contrast: the dignified elder statesman versus the one-man chaos factory. They believe that Trump’s lower profile and his absence from major social media platforms in recent years has helped his candidacy – they want the MAGA madness centre-stage. 

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The flaw in this theory is that if Trump is listening to his own strategists – admittedly, this is not a given for a man who tends to believe that he knows best – he will do his utmost to appear on the debate stage as the most reasonable, rational version of himself. In this, he might actually be helped by the decision to allow the network to mute the microphones of the candidates when it is not their turn to speak, imposing some nominal limits on his tendency to rant, interrupt and bully. 

Ultimately, both sides know that most Americans will not watch this debate, much less all the way to the end. They understand that the outcome will be disseminated through soundbites and social media clips that will render nuanced, detailed answers superfluous. A momentary lapse by either candidate will be circulated endlessly by their opponent in the months to come. The resulting spectacle will be a high-stakes, high-wire act for both contenders. America’s unenviable choice is about to get real.   

[See also: Donald Trump, guilty but not out]

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