Originally published in The Conversation on June 28, 2024

There are no parallels for the first debate of the 2024 US presidential election cycle.

From the moment Joe Biden walked across the stage, stiff-backed and straight-armed, disaster unfolded for the sitting president.

The bar Biden had to clear as he squared off against former president Donald Trump was always unfairly high. The election had already been framed as one largely about age, rather than, as Biden himself has argued, an existential fight for American democracy.

The debate was no different. Trump, supportive right-wing media and even much of the mainstream coverage focused overwhelmingly on Biden’s ability to just get through the 90 minutes coherently and strongly.

A generous interpretation – and one Biden supporters will no doubt push – is that he did get through it. Some have been saying that he did so with a cold.

But that messaging is unlikely to be successful.

From the moment the president coughed and gasped his way through his first answer, he likely confirmed the worst fears of even his staunchest supporters that he is simply too old to run again.

It is very difficult to see how Biden recovers from here.

Lack of fact-checking

The current president struggled to find his feet from the beginning.

One of the first questions from the CNN moderators focused on reproductive rights, a subject that should have been a clear winner for Biden.

Both his campaign and his administration have made this issue a big focus of the 2024 election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade two years ago. That decision was a clear mobiliser for voters in the 2022 midterm elections, in which Democrats performed much better than many analysts had expected.

Today, one in three American women live under total abortion bans. Democrats have been working hard to lay the blame for that squarely with Trump, who had repeatedly bragged about his role in upending reproductive rights in America.

After Trump told egregious lies about late-term and even “after birth” abortions during the debate, however, Biden stumbled in his response, failing to land on a clear message.

From there, Trump knew he had him.

Biden’s performance meant the actual policy substance of the debate, alongside the real stakes of this election, will be completely overshadowed. But the blame for that does not lie entirely at Biden’s feet.

The format of the debate saw the two CNN moderators reel off thematic questions one after the other without fact-checking the responses, or in some (but not all) cases, pushing the candidates to respond directly to the questions.

Shockingly, it was not until half an hour into the debate – once Biden had already lost – that the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and Trump’s threats to American democracy were raised.

The choice not to fact-check the candidates – and not to prioritise democracy as a central issue for the election – had the effect of placing the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s authoritarian tendencies on equal footing with the two men’s golf handicaps (which came up later in the debate).

That was a disaster for Biden’s attempts to frame this election on his terms. More importantly, it’s a potential disaster for American democracy.

Trump’s lies about the insurrection – such as his suggestion it was a false flag operation or that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was somehow to blame – were allowed to stand because neither the moderators nor Biden were able to effectively push back.

Trump was also allowed to say he will only accept the results of the election in November if it suits him, without being challenged directly by the moderators.

What does the debate mean?

A significant portion of the debate focused on the world beyond American shores, making clear how much this election matters globally.

As in domestic issues, the two candidates stand far apart in their policy positions on issues from climate action to Ukraine. Questions about Biden’s ceasefire plan for Gaza, for example, brought forth one of the more astounding moments in an already astounding debate – Trump suggested that Biden had “become like a Palestinian”, but a “bad” one.

At one point, attempting to recover and get ahead of Trump, Biden pushed back on what he sees as Trump’s overwhelming negativity about his own country.

The United States is, Biden said, the “most admired country in the history of the world”. Like the rest of the debate, the assertion wasn’t fact checked, either.

And after this showing, it’s very hard to argue that it is true.

Biden’s reputation, too, has likely taken a disastrous hit. His poor performance already has Democrats scrambling.

Former Obama administration official Julian Castro, for example, posted on X (formerly Twitter):

Biden had a very low bar going into the debate and failed to clear even that bar. He seemed unprepared, lost, and not strong enough to parry effectively with Trump, who lies constantly.

Other Democrats have already begun discussing whether Biden needs to drop out of the race. An open convention would be an enormous, and surprising, risk for the Democratic Party to take.

But the pressure on Biden’s candidacy will now be immense. And whether he can turn it around is much less clear now than it was before the debate.

There are no real parallels for what unfolded in Atlanta today. And there are likely none for what comes next.

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