Biden Struggles Against Trump in High-Stakes 2024 Debate

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden stumbled through exchanges in Thursday’s presidential debate, a performance that exacerbated concerns about his age and intensified Democratic worries about their candidate’s ability to defeat Republican Donald Trump in November’s election.

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The president’s performance was punctuated by blunders, repeated lines, coughs, misstatements and an extended freeze that will stoke fitness and acuity concerns. He tripped over key numbers, like the amount of new jobs created under his administration, caps for out-of-pocket drug costs and insulin that are key pillars of his reelection bid.

Analysis: Biden’s Disastrous Debate Accelerates Doubts Over Candidacy

The shaky performance threatens to wound Biden’s already sputtering campaign, fueling Republican attacks that, at 81, the oldest president in US history is not fit to serve another four-year term. Trump capitalized on Biden’s missteps, swiping at his opponent during an exchange on immigration.

“I really don’t know what he said on this, and I don’t think he knows what he said either,” Trump said.

Biden is fighting a cold, according to people familiar with the matter.

Key Takeaways: Biden Struggles as He Spars With Trump on Economy: Debate Takeaways

Biden’s Disastrous Debate Accelerates Doubts Over Candidacy

Trump’s performance was not without missteps of his own. Asked about Americans struggling with opioid addiction, the former president talked about immigration and Russia’s detention of a Wall Street Journal reporter. He falsely claimed credit for a cap on Medicare insulin prices, claimed Jan. 6 rioters were invited into the Capitol by police, and was forced to claim he never had sex with a porn star – a central element of his hush money trial. He also repeatedly and awkwardly sidestepped questions about if he would respect the results of the election.

Later in the debate when asked about age concerns, Biden retorted, “This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent.”

“Look at the record. Look at what I’ve done,” he added.

But Biden meandered through a scripted swipe on Trump’s previous exaggerated claims about his height and weight, and fell into an extended and muddled discussion of his golf handicap.

“Let’s not act like children,” Trump retorted.

Economic Sparring

The candidates opened their first presidential debate sparring over the economy, with each blaming the other for the rising cost of groceries and housing.

Voters have rated the economy as one of the defining issues of the campaign. Polls show voters skeptical of Biden’s record despite solid job growth and investments in manufacturing and infrastructure as historically high inflation has wreaked havoc on US households.

“We had an economy that was in freefall. The pandemic was so badly handled,” Biden said, pointing the finger at the former president’s record. “What we had to do was try to put things back together again, and that’s exactly what we began to do.”

Trump defended his tax cuts, set to expire next year, saying they paved the way for a stock market boom.

“I gave you the largest tax cut in history. I also gave you the largest regulation cut in history,” Trump said.

The dollar pushed higher against major peers as the candidates traded barbs, with the Mexican peso and Japanese yen among global currencies weakening. Bloomberg’s gauge of the greenback climbed to fresh highs for the year.

“Currencies are reacting to the US presidential debate,” said Commonwealth Bank of Australia strategist Carol Kong. “Judging by the reactions so far, markets think President Trump is ‘winning’ the debate. But it’s still early to make the conclusion.”

During the exchange on the economy, Biden said 15,000 jobs were created during his presidency, instead of 15 million, that some seniors now have a $200 annual cap on out-of-pocket drug prices, instead of $2,000, and incorrectly said some wealthy Americans were trillionaires.

“He’s not equipped to be president. You know it and I know it,” Trump said during the debate.

Capitol Insurrection

Trump sought to sidestep the insurrection at the Capitol, instead pivoting to tout the strength of the country at the time.

“I had virtually nothing to do, they asked me to go make a speech,” Trump said.

Biden noted that Trump did nothing to intervene as his supporters were swarming the building. “The idea that those people are patriots? Come on,” Biden said.

Separately, Trump made a series of grandiose pledges, saying he’d have the war in Ukraine “settled” before he takes office, after a pledge made in previous days that a Wall Street Journal reporter detained by Russia would be freed if he wins the election.

Legal Woes

Midway through the debate, Biden began to hit Trump over his legal troubles, an unprecedented situation in a US election. Trump is the first former president convicted of a felony and faces three more criminal indictments.

“The only person on this stage who is a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now,” Biden said.

Trump was found guilty by a Manhattan jury for falsifying business records to conceal a hush-money payment to an adult film star and awaits sentencing.

Biden directly cited Trump’s hush-money payment to the actress, Stormy Daniels, accusing the former president of “having sex with a porn star while your wife was pregnant.”

“I didn’t have sex with a porn star,” Trump replied.

Trump also hit back at Biden for bringing up his conviction by noting that the president’s son, Hunter Biden, is also guilty of a felony, in his case for illegally obtaining a firearm while addicted to drugs. Trump went on to say without providing any evidence that Biden himself would face prosecution.

Abortion Restrictions

Later in the debate, the two sparred over abortion, another defining issue in the campaign, with Biden calling Trump’s role in the wave of restrictions over the procedure a “terrible thing.” Trump appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v. Wade’s federal abortion protections.

Trump said the court’s ruling had just left the issue of abortion up to voters in the states.

Biden found his footing later when discussing veterans’ care, attacking Trump for reported remarks calling fallen US soldiers “suckers” and “losers.”

“He was standing with his four-star general, and he told me you said, I don’t want to go in there because they’re a bunch of losers and suckers. My son was not a loser. Was not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden said, referencing his late son Beau Biden who died of cancer and served in the military.

Trump fired back, denying the quote and saying Biden should apologize to him.

Biden scoffed at that, saying he’s “done more for veterans than any president has in American history.”

Israel-Hamas War

During a discussion of Israel’s war against Hamas, Biden walked a tightrope. The president sought to both stress his support for Israel in the wake of the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union, and his push for more restraint in Israeli military operations in Gaza.

Israel’s campaign there to root out Hamas has sparked a humanitarian crisis and divided Democrats, unleashing criticism over Biden’s handling of the war from young voters and progressives, key parts of the party’s electoral coalition.

Hamas cannot be allowed to continue, Biden said.

Trump said Israel should be allowed to “finish the job.” He also struck a more isolationist note on foreign policy, urging Biden to demand that NATO allies in Europe contribute more for defense.

“He’s become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian, he’s a weak one,” Trump said.

Biden responded, “I’ve never heard so much foolishness.”

(Updates throughout)

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