'Babbling' and 'hoarse': Biden's debate performance sends Democrats into a panic (2024)

ATLANTA —President Joe Biden was supposed to put the nation’s mind at ease over his physical and mental capacity with his debate showing Thursday night.

But from the onset of the debate, Biden, 81, seemingly struggled even to talk, mostly summoning a weak, raspy voice. In the opening minutes, he repeatedly tripped over his words, misspoke and lost his train of thought.

In one of the most notable moments, Biden ended a rambling statement that lacked focus by saying, “We finally beat Medicare,” before moderators cut him off and transitioned back to former President Donald Trump.

While Biden warmed up and gained more of a rhythm as the debate progressed, he struggled to land a punch against Trump, much less fact-check everything Trump said as he unleashed a torrent of bad information.

Trump also pounced on Biden, saying at one point that he didn’t understand what Biden had just said with regard to the border.

“I don’t know if he knows what he said, either,” Trump said.

Nearly an hour into the debate, a Biden aide and others familiar with his situation offered up an explanation for his hoarseness: He has a cold.

But there were problems aside from the shakiness of Biden's voice. When he wasn't talking, he often stared off into the distance. Trump frequently steamrolled over Biden, accusing him of being a criminal and of peddling misinformation — many times without a response from Biden, though he did fire back with a handful of one-liners throughout.

The Biden campaign acknowledged that the debate would be a critical moment in the election, with officials hoping it could shake up the race to his benefit. Most polls have found the race to be neck and neck, with razor-thin margins that have moved negligibly for months, even after a New York jury found Trump guilty on 34 felony counts.

Questions about Biden’s age and frailty have dragged down his polling numbers for months. The public concerns are exacerbated by deceptively edited videos, some of which have gone viral, that cut off relevant parts of an event, making it appear as if Biden is wandering or confused. This was Biden’s first opportunity since the State of the Union speech to dispel that narrative.

Instead of a new beginning, many Democrats saw it as a moment for panic.

“Democrats just committed collective suicide,” said a party strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns. “Biden sounds hoarse, looks tired and is babbling. He is reaffirming everything voters already perceived. President Biden can’t win. This debate is a nail in the political coffin.”

“It’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t nominate someone else,” a Democratic consultant who works on down-ballot races said.

Biden did ramp up as the debate progressed.

“Only one of us is a convicted felon, and I’m looking at him,” Biden said to Trump. That was one moment that tested particularly well in the Biden campaign's internal real-time polling at the time of the debate, according to a person familiar with the polling.

An aide said that it was “not an ideal start” for Biden at the beginning of the debate but that there was “no mass panic” at the campaign headquarters in Delaware.

The muting of the candidates' microphones at the debate, a stipulation both campaigns agreed to before the debate, added a new dimension to the faceoff. The first Biden-Trump match-up in 2020 was marked by repeated interruptions by Trump, leading to moments of frustration for Biden.

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden complained at that first Cleveland debate.

Reaction pours in

“I’m thinking the Democrats are thinking about who the Barry Goldwater is who can walk in tomorrow and tell the president he needs to step aside,” said Ben Proto, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party.

In 1974, after key Watergate tapes were made public, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., went to see President Richard Nixon alongside other prominent lawmakers, telling Nixon that he would be convicted by the Senate and that he should step aside — which he did.

Biden’s campaign defended his performance, saying he offered a “positive and winning vision” for America.

“On the other side of the stage was Donald Trump, who offered a dark and backwards window into what America will look like if he steps foot back in the White House: a country where women are forced to beg for the health care they need to stay alive. A country that puts the interests of billionaires over working people,” Biden campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon said in a statement. “And a former president who not once, not twice, but three times, failed to promise he would accept the results of a free and fair election this November.”

Some Democrats also defended Biden presidency more broadly after the debate, pointing to his policies over Trump's.

"One thing this debate won’t change is Trump’s base instinct to sell out anyone to make a quick buck or put his own image on a steak, golf course or even the Holy Bible," said Brandon Weathersby, a spokesman with the pro-Biden American Bridge 21st Century super PAC. "Trump puts himself first every time, and that won’t change if he becomes president again."

Trump, meanwhile, has fended off his own questions over whether he’s diminished by age, including his struggles to stay on topic and his meandering when he’s speaking. Biden has posited that Trump “snapped” after his 2020 election loss and is unstable, which he aired again Thursday night.

Trump often gave his typical rambling responses and seemed at times to make up factoids and figures.

“During my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever, and my top environmental people gave me that statistic just before I walked on the stage, actually,” Trump said.

Trump also said he would lower insulin prices for seniors, but it was Biden who signed legislation in 2022 that lowered out-of-pocket costs for people on Medicare to $35 a month and covered all insulin products.

Setting the stage for the fall

The first debate during the 2020 election cycle was in early September, meaning the first 2024 general election debate was significantly earlier than usual — more than two months ahead of Labor Day, which is often seen as the point when most voters start to pay attention to presidential contests.

“Debates move numbers,” said Matt Gorman, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for presidential campaign of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “And with this so early — and the next one not until September — you’re stuck with the narrative for four long months.

“And one and the other’s performance will set the tone for the next one,” he added.

For months, Trump’s team has been hammering Biden’s mental acuity, a strategy that is at odds with how campaigns generally handle the lead-up to debates, when they try to build up opponents as deft debaters to set expectations.

The expectations for Biden were low, and by almost all estimates he was unable to clear them.

“Biden just had to beat himself; unfortunately the stumbling and diminished Joe Biden the world has come to know made Trump look competent and energetic,” said a former Trump campaign official who isn’t working for his campaign this year. “I expect there will be some loud calls from Democrats for a change on the top of the ticket.”

“The floor for Biden was so low,” the person added. “After Biden’s debate performance, it seems the floor is 6 feet under.”

The 90-minute debate hit on a wide variety of topics, but many of the most dominant themes were centered on those that have been most prominent on the campaign trail over the past few months.

Trump hit Biden on two big policy fights that have stubbornly dogged his campaign: immigration and inflation.

Since Biden took office, 15 million jobs have been created and the unemployment rate sits at a relatively low 4%, but prices for consumer goods have remained high, and they provided a consistent line of attack from the Trump campaign and Republicans more broadly.

In one heated exchange, Trump point-blank said “he caused the inflation.” Biden said in response there was less inflation under Trump because he tanked the economy.

“There was no inflation when I came into office,” Biden said before that rejoinder — a quote Republicans quickly used as evidence that all of the current price hikes happened on Biden’s watch.

Trump continued to attack Biden over his border policies, which his campaign has used as one of its biggest lines of attack throughout the campaign. That often including amplifying each time an undocumented migrant commits a crime even though the data doesn’t support the idea of a migrant crime wave.

We have a border that is the most dangerous place anywhere in the world,” Trump said.

Earlier this year, Trump used his influence over congressional Republicans to block a bipartisan border deal that Biden supported.

Biden also tried to land a punch about Jan. 6, trying to build on the oft-discussed idea that Trump’s returning to the White House would be a threat to democracy.

“He encouraged those folks to go up to Capitol Hill,” Biden said. “He sat there for three hours being begged by his vice president and many colleagues on the Republican side to do something.”

Trump deflected, arguing the Biden should be “ashamed” for arresting those who participated in the attempted insurrection.

Natasha Korecki

Natasha Korecki is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

Matt Dixon

Matt Dixon is a senior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Florida.

Jonathan Allen

Jonathan Allen is asenior national politics reporter for NBC News, based in Washington.

Henry J. Gomez

and

Monica Alba

contributed

.

'Babbling' and 'hoarse': Biden's debate performance sends Democrats into a panic (2024)
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