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Biden Said ‘Watch Me.’ The Country Just Did.

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Biden grinning in right-forward-angle close-up

ATLANTA — President Biden repeated the same line for four years when politicians, voters, or the press conveyed concern about his age. He often says, “Watch me!” His problem may now be that the country just did.

Biden at opening debate – ugh!

The opening debate of 2024 was as historic as it was unsightly. Never before have a sitting and a former president debated on stage together. The two old men took the opportunity to argue for 90 minutes over who will be remembered as the worst to serve in the position.

During the ensuing  quarrel, former President Trump, 78, came across annoyed and frustrated, but uncharacteristically restrained. Biden, 81, at times simply appeared lost.

For instance, the president concluded a mumbled, meandering answer about illegal immigration with a vow to deliver a “total ban” on some unspecified activity. “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump fired back. “I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

The exchange came within the first 15 minutes, and suddenly, fears about Biden’s age and acuity, concerns that were once only whispered among Democrats, were being discussed openly on the left. Before the night was over observers ranging from Andrew Yang, who competed with him for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, to Van Jones, a CNN contributor who previously worked in the Obama administration, said it was time for Democrats to look for another nominee. Former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod declared on CNN after the debate that “panic has set in” and predicted that party leaders would consider encouraging Biden to step aside.

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Biden was supposed to prove he could hack it

Democrats had hoped that an early debate would be the perfect opportunity to prove that the president was still up to the job, and Biden retreated to his Delaware home and Camp David for more than a week to prepare. The Biden campaign told RealClearPolitics ahead of the contest that they were not sure “what version of Donald Trump” would show up on stage but that Biden was ready to “drive home” how returning his predecessor to power “would be traumatic.”

And there certainly were some substantive and new policy exchanges as Biden tried to change the election from a referendum on his time in office to a choice between chaos and stability.

On the economy, Trump claimed that Biden “caused the inflation.” Biden fired back, “There was no inflation when I became president. You know why? The economy was flat on its back.”

In foreign policy, Trump said that the terms proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin for ending the war in Ukraine were “not acceptable.” An incredulous Biden said later, “This a guy who wants to get out of NATO,” and warned that Russian troops would continue to move east in their aggression.

On abortion, he lied

Regarding regulations after the repeal of Roe v Wade, Trump said he would not ban medication abortions, before accusing Democrats of being “radical because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, or even after birth.” Biden, whose administration has declined to say what restrictions they support, replied, “We are not for late-term abortions. Period.”

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But substance was often overshadowed by confusion sowed by the president himself. Asked about the national debt, Biden offered an answer that began with a discussion of tax cuts and ended with a confusing non-sequitur: “We finally beat Medicare.” Trump pivoted to allegations that an influx of illegal immigrants was taxing that system, saying, “Well, he’s right. He did beat Medicare – he beat it to death.”

Each exchange was met with a silence unprecedented in the history of presidential debate. There was no audience inside the debate hall, and in another historic first, a mute button had been installed on each candidate’s microphone to prevent interruptions. The side-by-side image of the two men may be the enduring image of the night: A smirking Trump and a slack-jawed Biden.

Damage control, report!

In an apparent attempt at damage control at the halfway mark of the debate, the Biden camp let it be known that their candidate, whose voice was raspy and unsure, was a bit unwell. The White House quickly confirmed to RCP that the president had a cold. But hours earlier, there was no mention of ill health. Biden surrogates had been the picture of confidence.

“When I saw him, I said, ‘Can you counsel me on how to relax tonight,’” California Gov. Gavin Newsom told RCP before the candidates took the stage, “because as someone who is not up there, I probably have more anxiety than he does.” Biden is built for the challenge, Newsom continued, “he delivers each and every time. He meets these moments. I have not seen an exception.”

Thursday night qualified as an exception, as many Democrats conceded afterward. Biden usually relishes the chance to exceed expectations, often appearing like a dead man walking only to later crash his own funeral. He was written off in the 2020 primary season after being drubbed in Iowa and New Hampshire, then righting his ship in the South Carolina primary and cruising to the nomination. He pulled off a similar dynamic in the 2022 midterms and helped Democrats hold the Senate. This time, trailing Trump in the RealClearPolitics Average, Democrats desperately hoped Biden could deliver that way again. His campaign wanted to debate, and pushed for it. Was that a mistake?

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Kamala makes excuses

“It was a slow start. That’s obvious to everyone. I’m not going to debate that point,” Vice President Kamala Harris conceded in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN before pivoting. “I’m talking about the choice in November. I’m talking about one of the most important elections in our collective lifetime.”

For years now, Democrats have tried to keep the focus on policy, not the condition of the president. Biden has occasionally joked about his own age to deflate the issue, while more recently, the administration has dismissed videos of the president looking lost as “cheap-fakes” and disinformation. It hasn’t worked.

A New York Times/Siena poll released the day before the debate found that 70% of registered voters believed Biden was “just too old to be an effective president.”

When the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Biden showed signs of slipping behind closed doors, the White House launched a furious rebuttal, accusing the paper of printing Republican “smears.” Democrats similarly criticized Special Counsel Robert Hur’s finding that the president was “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” as inaccurate and unnecessary.

At the end of the night, even sympathetic Democrats were encouraging the Biden campaign to change course. “Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security advisor in the Obama-Biden administration.

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The President had a cold? Seriously?

“I think it’s already been reported that the president had a cold. I mean, I’d rather have a president that might have a minor cold to actually having someone that lied all night,” Rep. Robert Garcia, a California Democrat and Biden surrogate, told RCP.

Trump’s “lies” quickly became a Democratic Party talking point, repeated by Kamala Harris in her session with Anderson Cooper and by Jill and Joe Biden themselves at the Democrats’ watch party here. For the most part, Republicans just ignored that line of attack, choosing instead to keep the focus on what journalist Evan Osnos called Biden’s “diminished” persona.

“Donald Trump talked about the issues that the American people care about. Joe Biden, I mean, I know what an independent clause is, and he couldn’t find one to save his life,” Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, countered in an interview with RCP.

While the Trump campaign was in full force at the end of the night, Biden’s surrogates did not enter the spin room to wrangle press until half an hour after the debate ended. A panel on MSNBC News was already openly discussing the possibility of replacing Biden as his party’s nominee before the Democratic National Convention in August. Republicans, meanwhile, were downright giddy.

You can’t replace Biden at the convention – without his consent

“What would be a bigger threat to democracy than taking a candidate, post-primary, when millions of Democratic primary voters have already voted, and trying to replace him at a convention with a few hundred democratic elites,” asked Sen J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican on Trump’s running mate shortlist.

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A wave of reporters crashed in around Newsom to ask the California governor about that possibility. “I was very proud of the president tonight,” Newsom said in the spin room, insisting that “from my humble perspective,” Biden had carried the night on substance, not style.

Was he prepared to replace Biden if need be at the top of the ticket? “I will never turn my back on President Biden,” Newsom replied. “I don’t know a Democrat in my party that would do so, and especially after tonight. We have his back.”

Post-mortem spin

The president, for his part, tried to project confidence. When the motorcade stopped at a Waffle House in downtown Atlanta to pick up food for staff and volunteers, Biden told the press, “I think we did well.”

“No. It’s hard to debate a liar,” he said when asked about the calls for him to leave the race and make room for another Democratic challenger, before adding that “The New York Times pointed out he lied 26 times.” The final public statement from the president on the night of the first debate: Confirmation that he had a cold. He said, “I have a sore throat.”

Moments earlier, at the post-debate watch party for his supporters, Biden revealed something else: namely, that he realized after Thursday night’s performance that he has more work to do. A second debate between these two men is scheduled for September. “See you at the next one!” Trump shouted. “God love you all!”

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This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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White House Correspondent at | Website | + posts

Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics. He previously wrote for The Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.

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