US Presidential Debate: Biden Outplays Trump

In the first TV debate, we saw both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates display the same level of crassness and insinuated demagogy. However, this suggests that the president has a problem, because without a breakthrough in opinion polls, he is heading for defeat.

When John F. Kennedy entered the ABC TV debate studio on Sept. 26, [1960], he was not the front-runner. He was no rival for Richard Nixon’s extensive experience; he was out of his league. After a 90-minutes debate, it was not yet certain that Kennedy would win the election, but victory was within his grasp. Nixon, who was unfamiliar with the nature of television, a new medium at the time, paled in comparison with his opponent. Sweating and slightly hunched over, speaking academic jargon, he stood in contrast to the handsome Democratic senator. A month later, the Kennedy emerged victorious in the battle for the White House.

That was the kind of breakthrough Donald Trump needed on Tuesday. Lagging behind Joe Biden in opinion polls by seven to nine percentage points for many months now, Trump intended to make the older vice president look forgetful, easily rattled and nothing like a tough guy. This is why the billionaire candidate interrupted his opponent as many as 73 times, flouting the rules that the candidates’ staffs had both agreed on.

But Biden did not take the bait. He not only continued to speak his mind, but also offered some biting comments of his own.

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said to Trump at one point, referring to the famous spat between King Juan Carlos of Spain and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Iberia-American Summit in 2007. He not only showed that he knew how to respond, but also reduced his opponent to the level of a Venezuelan warlord. When Trump called Biden a fool, Biden called Trump a clown. When the president called the Democratic candidate’s son a loser, Biden hailed his son as a hero.

Biden might be the essence of Washington establishment politics with more than 43 years of experience, but he obviously did his homework on how to debate in the age of Twitter as well.

Instead of relying on the politically correct but dull and often clichéd expressions which brought down Hillary Clinton four years ago, Biden appealed to emotions, kept his messages short, and above all, reached directly out to the simple viewer. Trump has used a similar strategy over the last three and a half years, but this time, he lacked the freshness that propelled him to victory in the previous presidential election.

It is not difficult to predict that the viewers who watched the crass exchange are most likely to vote along party lines. Those who wanted to vote for Trump before the debate will regard his comments as the most spot-on. Those who planned to support Biden were further confirmed in their convictions.

However, this means that the president is on a slippery slope. He must win over approximately 15 million swing voters in order to remain in the White House. The current status quo means victory for Biden.

Can the president tip the scales in his own favor when there is little more than a month left until the election? By refusing to condemn a group which embraces white supremacy, Trump indicated the kind of strategy he will employ. With the economy in a nosedive and a pandemic which cannot be controlled, Trump will want to present himself as the defender of an impoverished middle class who fears mass immigration and the loss of American national identity.

But that is probably not enough to change the trend that is currently carrying Biden to a win. The president must find a new key to defeating his rival. Time is running out.

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