Image Source : REUTERS Biden and Trump in US presidential debate 2024

Atlanta: The United States bore witness to a fiery debate between Democrat Joe Biden and his Republican rival Donald Trump that most agreed ended badly for the 81-year-old US President. The two sparred over economy, immigration, abortion and foreign policy among others, where their bitter rivalry was at stark display as they refused to shake hands and levied personal attacks against each other.

A key highlight of the debate was Biden’s underwhelming performance as he spoke in a hoarse voice that allies claimed was a result of a cold. However, his stumbling performance, where he froze on several points and hurried through some of his answers, gave an overall impression that the president was too old to compete for a second White House term and fuelled calls for him to step aside.

On the other hand, Trump assertively launched a barrage of criticisms over a border crisis, inflation and missteps in the US foreign policy. Even though most agreed that Trump mostly indulged in falsehoods and snappy personal attacks to deflect the situation, it was clear that his performance resonated more strongly with the polarised voters than Biden’s.

What the leaders said on various issues?

Economy: Biden blamed Trump from leaving him with a battered economy and claimed to rescue it from “free fall” and chaos. Trump lambasted Biden for doing a poor job with the economy and “inflation is absolutely killing us”. Biden blamed Trump for poorly managing the COVID-19 pandemic and “decimating” the economy, leading to high unemployment.

Abortion: Biden appeared to have bungled his answer on abortion, one of the most important issues for Democrats. He lashed out at Trump for reversing the Roe v Wade ruling that legalised abortion, while Trump defended abortion ban, but said he would not impose a ban on abortion medication recently approved by the Supreme Court.

Immigration: Biden accused Trump of spreading falsehoods about the US immigration crisis, refuting claims of illegal immigrants being welcomed in the country. Trump countered by saying illegal “terrorists” are killing US citizens, calling it a “Biden migrant wave”.

Foreign policy: The duo sparred excessively on foreign policy, with Trump criticising Biden’s approach to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Trump also claimed that the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars would not have happened under his presidency. Trump also advocated for Israel to finish the job in Gaza and called Biden a “weak Palestinian”.

Wars: Trump held no bounds as he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “salesman” and promised to end the ongoing war in Ukraine. Biden attacked Trump by saying he supported a “war criminal” like Russian President Vladimir Putin in fuelling the war in Ukraine. 

NATO: Biden attacked Trump on pulling out of the transatlantic alliance heavily involved in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. “This is a guy who wants to pull out of NATO,” Biden said. Trump did not talk about whether he would pull out but said countries should focus more on their defence.

Climate change: Trump said the US had “absolutely immaculate, clean water” and air under his presidency, to which Biden retorted by saying, “He hasn’t done a damn thing” for the environment. More than 50 per cent of Americans believe Trump had harmed the country on climate change.

Legal troubles: Referring to Trump’s recent conviction in the hush money case, Biden called him a “convicted felon”. Trump shot back by calling Biden a “criminal” and mentioned his son Hunter Biden’s own conviction in the illegal possession of a firearm.

2021 US Capitol riot: Trump refused to take responsibility for inciting the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, claiming he encouraged people to act “peacefully and patriotically”, who later attacked former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Trump later said he would accept the results of the 2024 elections if they were fair, without saying a definite yes or no.

Who fared better in the debate?

Biden, 81 and Trump, 78, are the oldest presidential candidates who are competing in a rematch for a second White House term. A majority of people who watched the presidential debate said Trump turned in a better performance than Biden, a complete opposite of the 2020 debate when the Democrat outperformed the Republican. A CNN flash poll showed that 67 per cent to 33 per cent of the registered watchers preferred Trump over Biden in the debate.

Vice President Kamala Harris admitted that Biden had a “slow start” but it was a strong finish. “People can debate on style points but ultimately this election … has to be about substance,” she said. Reactions from other observers were less supportive, as Democrats also admitted that Biden had stumbled hard in his rhetoric against Trump.

A top Biden donor said, “There is no way to spin this. His performance was disqualifying. There is going to be a call for a brokered convention.” The donor said there could be fresh calls for Biden to step down, and it may come down to his wife Jill Biden to persuade him. Fundraising will “dry up,” the donor predicted. 

(with inputs from agencies)

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