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A Train Wreck for Biden and the Democrats in the First US Presidential Debate

Given how poor his approval ratings are, the debate was critical for Biden’s electoral prospects to rise.

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The first US Presidential debate, hosted by CNN, was quite a train wreck for President Joe Biden by any stretch of one’s imagination. His performance must make him and the Democratic Party at large consider that he be replaced by someone (maybe invite independent candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr) who is more ready, hungry, and strategically tactful to counter Donald Trump.

Biden, who has had a long career in public life and has managed a relatively better economy, clearly seemed out of place, forgetting his lines throughout the debate. The debate was an opportunity for him to give a strong response to those who criticise his candidacy with respect to his age, on whether he had the energy and stamina to be in it for the long haul and win another term. Unfortunately, his performance depicted otherwise.

Yes, Biden has never been a great debater, but his voice and manner didn’t put to rest any of the doubts regarding his age and effectiveness. Rather, he amplified them.
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As Nicholas Kristof wrote and argued in the New York Times right after the debate, “One of the perils facing this country, I believe and Biden believes, is the risk of a victory by Donald Trump. And after the debate, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Biden remaining in the race increases the likelihood that Trump will move into the White House in January.”

What’s surprising from the Democratic Party’s perspective is how it has completely failed in the past year to even look beyond a physically fragile and hoarse-voiced Biden, and present a more suitable alternative for this election.

The party's choice has given a much easier platform for Trump to counterpunch his way back to what could become a more consequential US Presidency, with its impact on the geopolitical and geo-economic landscape being more severe than before (even more than Trump’s last presidential term).

This is quite unfortunate, given the mixed, yet overall progressive deliverance of Biden's economic promises. As Eric Levitz argued more recently, “President Joe Biden’s economic record is a bit like a certain orange-hued ex-president: It’s perpetually on trial.”

While McDonald's Big Macs became more expensive during Biden’s presidential term, the US saw higher and stronger growth, more worker power (via better wages and bargaining position), and lower unemployment. These are critical strengths from a pandemic-wrung economy which was painfully struggling to recover when Trump lost the previous presidential election to Biden in November 2020.

Recovering from the pandemic was always going to be difficult as COVID shut off large sectors of the US economy and severed factory production all over the world. Consumers suddenly shifted their economic preferences and consumption habits, from in-person services towards manufactured goods, which most businesses (and producers) weren’t ready for.

These disruptions had serious adverse economic costs. America’s political class and the extractive capitalist-oriented policy ecosystem could have paid those costs by immiserating America’s most vulnerable workers through a prolonged period of high unemployment. That is not what happened under Biden.

To many of the reasonable, centred voters, Biden's handling of the economic situation would seem like reasonable governance by a reasonable leader, even if the more conservative, older, and high-income Americans, especially those who never lost their jobs during the pandemic and kept all their savings in cash, might disagree.
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The real issue for Biden has been inflation, which acts as an unbearable, invisible tax, especially for middle and low-income Americans.

Inflation has been far worse during the Biden administration, up 19.9 percent over the first 41 months of Biden’s term compared to 5.4 percent during Trump’s first 41 months, according to the government’s consumer price index. Year-over-year, inflation peaked under Biden at a four-decade high of nine percent in 2022 before falling to just over three percent — which Biden has blamed on COVID-19’s lingering impact and the Russia-Ukraine war.

On Federal Debt too, Biden’s presidential term saw the debt level growing even further. The federal government’s national debt of $34.75 trillion is 25 percent higher than the day Biden took office, after rising 39 percent during Trump’s presidency, up from $19.95 trillion in January 2017 — with the US running a total deficit of $5.85 trillion from its fiscal years 2021 to 2023, compared to $2.43 trillion from 2017 to 2019, and a record $3.13 trillion in 2020 alone.

But keeping these fundamentals on the economy aside, the debate (and low approval ratings), was critical in emphasising that a Biden presidency was a shift away from the Trump years, i.e., a drastic shift in US macro-foreign policy outlook, a return to a US-anchored democratic world order built on the support, trust, and cooperation of strategic allies, while countering the usual suspects (Russia, China).

The overturning of Roe v Wade and the fight for reproductive health rights (and abortion) are the other key points in Biden's (and the Democrats') offered hope to the American public (more importantly, its women's electorate).

During the debate, however, it was Biden’s voice (low and weak) and facial expression (frozen, mouth open, and few smirks) with answers that were rambling or vague or ended in confusion, that presented him as someone not fit to hold office. He gave remarks about health care and abortion that really didn’t make any point, giving Trump a chance to say things like, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

Maybe the critics are being too harsh in seeing this one debate as a verdict on Biden’s electoral prospects but given how poor his approval ratings are, the debate was critical for him. It ended, however, with a higher probabilistic return to a second presidential term for Donald Trump later this year.

(Deepanshu Mohan is a Professor of Economics, Dean, IDEAS, Office of Inter-Disciplinary Studies, and Director of Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), OP Jindal Global University. He is a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and a 2024 Fall Academic Visitor to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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