What to expect from high-Stakes debate between Biden and Trump debate

Imran Khalid

Washington (Brussels Morning) – The first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is crucial, with both candidates needing a breakthrough moment to galvanize their campaigns. The debate’s impact is uncertain, and the candidates’ advanced age and rhetorical limitations may affect their performance. The debate rules must be clear, and Biden’s campaign should insist on a format that prioritizes coherent discourse over chaotic grandstanding

Thursday night’s presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump is set to be the most consequential since the landmark 1960 showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This debate marks the first rematch since Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower clashed in 1952 and again in 1956, and it’s a critical moment for both candidates to seize the opportunity to sway the undecided and solidify support.

Presidential Debate: A Battle of Wits and Endurance

Indubitably, Thursday night’s first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former president, now convicted felon, Donald Trump, is set to be the most consequential since the landmark 1960 showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. This debate is not just another high-stakes political face-off but marks the first rematch since Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower clashed in 1952 and again in 1956. Unlike typical elections, there is little new to uncover about these two polarizing figures, their policies, or their temperaments.

Both Biden and Trump, familiar faces to the electorate, are in desperate need of a breakthrough moment to galvanize their campaigns, which have been locked in a steady, albeit unremarkable, battle. However, the debate’s impact is uncertain. Should neither candidate deliver a standout performance or succumb to any of the numerous traps laid before them, it’s plausible that this event may not significantly alter the dynamics of the race. As America watches with bated breath, the stakes are undeniably high, but the outcome remains an open question, poised on a knife’s edge of political fortune.

As history has shown, debates can be pivotal, but they can also fade into the background, leaving the race largely unaffected. In the end, it’s not just about winning the debate – it’s about seizing the moment to sway the undecided and solidify support. Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump stands at the peak of their rhetorical prowess.Viewers are bracing for a spectacle shaped more by the candidates’ age than by their rhetorical prowess. With a combined age of 159 years, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are grappling with the relentless advance of time. 

Biden, never known for the charismatic television presence of his predecessor, Barack Obama, has faced a lifelong struggle with stuttering. While age doesn’t worsen a stutter, it has seemingly eroded his ability to navigate around it, making his speech often halting and less confident than in previous years. His memory and reaction times, like those of many octogenarians, are visibly declining, affecting his overall delivery. Consequently, his speaking style often appears halting and less confidence-inspiring than in previous years.

Trump, on the other hand, has always been a master of the non-sequitur, prone to veer off into tangents about unrelated matters, rather than focusing on substantial issues. However, over the past year, the fatigue from constant travel between Mar-a-Lago, campaign stops, and his numerous legal battles seems to have taken its toll. His signature word salads have become increasingly difficult to parse into coherent statements. Obviously, in this context, the debates are less about sharp oratory and more about whether either candidate can present a clear, compelling vision.

The challenge for both Biden and Trump will be to transcend their rhetorical limitations and connect meaningfully with an audience yearning for decisive leadership. For viewers, this means the debates may be less about eloquent exchanges and more about observing two candidates grappling with the limitations imposed by age and relentless schedules. The outcome hinges not just on the content of their words but on their ability to project competence and clarity amidst these challenges.

Debate Strategy: Biden and Trump’s High-Stakes Test

Donald Trump has consistently dialed up irritation and unsportsmanlike conduct during his five televised general election debates in 2016 and 2020. His strategy often revolves around provoking his opponent. Lacking personal discipline and the ability to stay on message, this tactic might be all he has. Good sense, after all, isn’t his strong suit. But the Biden campaign cannot afford to let this happen again. The debate rules must be unequivocally clear – while some cross-talk is unavoidable, there must be a threshold for interruptions with corresponding consequences. If Trump refuses to adhere to limits on his abusive behavior, Biden should refuse to debate, regardless of current poll standings. 

The essence of a debate should be an exchange of ideas, not a spectacle of disorder. Setting firm boundaries ensures the conversation remains substantive. Biden’s campaign must insist on a format that prioritizes coherent discourse over chaotic grandstanding. This approach not only protects the integrity of the debate but also respects the electorate’s need for clarity over confusion. In a time when the public’s trust in political processes is fragile, maintaining decorum in debates is crucial. The spectacle of unchecked interruptions and insults will only deepen cynicism. By standing firm on debate rules, Biden has an opportunity to elevate the political conversation, offering voters a clearer vision amidst the noise.

Trump, despite his popularity among Republicans and gains among non-college educated African-American and Latino males, faces an uphill battle. The momentum appears to favor President Biden, who benefits from the incumbency advantage. However, Trump is also running with a quasi-incumbent status, making the election a battle of focus between two unpopular figures. Both candidates must confront and overcome negative perceptions. American voters are swayed less by policy specifics and more by overall impressions, likability, and respectability. Each man, therefore, must manage the debates carefully, steering clear of pitfalls to maintain their standing. In this high-stakes environment, their ability to project competence and connect on a personal level will be crucial. 

Republicans have depicted President Biden as senile and incompetent, capitalizing on his visible age. However, if Biden can replicate his performance from the State of the Union address in January – where he appeared engaged, competent, and even lively, particularly during his exchanges with Republicans – he will likely have a successful debate. It’s crucial that he avoids seeming confused or bewildered, though voters may overlook some verbal missteps. 

Conversely, Trump faces the challenge of controlling his rhetoric. Known for his extreme outbursts and excessive outrage, Trump risks significant damage if he appears overly aggressive, boorish, or obnoxious, as he did in previous debates with Biden. Remaining calm and controlled, and resisting bait from Biden or tough questions from moderators, could help reassure voters of his stability. Additionally, Trump must steer clear of the rambling tendencies that have increasingly marked his public and private appearances, to avoid further alienating potential supporters.

Trump has a chance to tap into the nostalgia many voters feel about his presidency while sidestepping the failures, particularly during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, that contributed to his defeat four years ago. He must avoid relitigating the 2020 election or fixating on conspiracy theories that most swing voters find irrelevant to the future. Both Trump and Biden face the critical task of not reinforcing negative stereotypes: Biden as a senile figure maintaining an unjust status quo, and Trump as an aggressive, authoritarian-leaning leader. 

History suggests debates have a minimal impact on election outcomes, but in a race as close as this one, every vote counts. Biden cannot afford any display of physical or mental weakness, though it’s unlikely he will get through an entire debate without some stumble that could dominate the news cycles for days. Trump, meanwhile, must stay focused and resist the urge to indulge in his usual extreme rhetoric. For both candidates, the debates present a pivotal moment to either bolster their campaigns or inadvertently reinforce the very criticisms that have dogged them. Maintaining composure and clarity will be essential as they vie for the undecided voters who could tip the balance in this tightly contested election.

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Imran Khalid is a reelance columnist on international affairs and I have been regularly contributing articles on international l affairs to some of the prestigious publications including the South China Morning Post, the Korea Times, the Jakarta Post, the New Straits Times (Malaysia), the Daily Sabah (Turkiye),the New Age (Bangladesh),the Oman Observer, the Guardian (Nigeria), the Ceylon Today (Sri Lanka) , the Geopolitical Monitor, the Manila Times, the AJU Business Daily and Mail & Guardian (South Africa) etc. He is based in Karachi, Pakistan.