Why Biden-Trump debates come with risks for both sides

Home US & World Why Biden-Trump debates come with risks for both sides
Why Biden-Trump debates come with risks for both sides

The president had been coy about whether he was ever going to debate his Republican opponent. But if he had taken a pass, he would have been the first president since Richard Nixon in 1972 to skip the debate process entirely.

Given that there have been repeated questions about his age and competency to serve another four years in office, a move to sidestep the presidential face-offs would have risked convincing the public that he was not up to the task.

As it was, he was able to set the terms of the debate in a way that could be to his advantage. The two events will be hosted by CNN and ABC News, and not Fox News, avoiding a debate moderator with a clear right-wing tilt.

The June debate will be held in CNN’s Atlanta studios with no live audience, which also may play better for the president, whose crowds have been less enthusiastic than the former president’s. It also guarantees Mr Biden will not be interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters, which has been a campaign concern during recent public appearances.

There are several ways the early timing of the first debate – held, in a break with tradition, before the summer party nominating conventions – may also help Mr Biden.

First, it will allow his team an earlier opportunity to frame the election as a binary choice between Mr Trump and Mr Biden. Mr Biden’s advisers have long contended that as the public becomes more aware of the possibility of another Trump presidency, the Democrat’s support will solidify.

Second, a June debate gives Mr Biden more time to recover if he has a weak performance. Incumbent presidents – from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama – have a history of uneven first-debates. If Biden follows this trend, he has months, including what is sure to be a carefully scripted Democratic convention speech, to rebound.

Of course, the plan also has risks. If he is still trailing in October, there won’t be any high-profile debates, with their audiences in the tens of millions, to shake things up. There’s also the chance he does struggle, which could lead to second-guessing about his decision to participate at all. And if he seriously falters in June, it may cement the public’s view that he’s not up to the task to the point where no convention speeches or multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns could change it.

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