Biden Trump
US President Joe Biden and former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: It is often said that when the American president speaks, the world listens.

I am not sure about the world, but I struggled to understand what US President Joe Biden was trying to say at the first presidential debate with former President Donald Trump this morning.

Initially I thought Biden had a throat infection. In the early minutes of the debate, he cleared his throat a couple of times and sounded hoarse.

Two White House officials said Biden had a cold. Explanation accepted.

He then stumbled over words, phrases and sentences multiple times, sometimes incoherent, at other times fumbling or correcting himself.

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

It was the first debate ever between a president and former president - and each accused each other of being history's worst.

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Let’s face it. Debates are not easy. It requires intense preparation, presence of mind and confidence. It’s not meant for the weak at heart. You barely have time to think. You should have facts and figures on your fingertips. And you should sound convincing. All this without breaking into a sweat.

And when you have the US presidential candidates standing in front of a camera without an audience, without prepared papers or a teleprompter, you can multiply the difficulty factor many times.

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden attends the first presidential debate hosted by CNN in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 27, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

So when two men, around 80 years of age, fighting for arguably the most powerful position in the world, agree to face-off to a TV audience of tens of millions, what exactly are you expecting? I think most people who switched on their TVs to watch the debate wanted to see if one of the candidates would keel over, or forget his lines or blank out. None of this happened.

I can’t imagine too many 80-year-olds wanting to stand in front of a camera for 90 minutes and face intense grilling. But then, both Biden and Trump chose to do this. The stakes are high for both of them and their parties. And, of course, for the United States.

Vice President Kamala Harris, appearing on CNN after the debate, acknowledged what she called Biden’s “slow start” but argued that voters should judge him and Trump based on their years in office.

Biden found his footing at the halfway mark when he attacked Trump over his conviction for covering up hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, calling him a “felon.” In response, Trump brought up the recent conviction of Biden’s son, Hunter, for lying about his drug use to buy a gun.

Calling names

Calling each other names came naturally during the debate. Among the names thrown around were ‘suckers and losers’, ‘felon’, ‘worst president’, ‘alley cat’ and ‘whiner’.

If Biden came off the blocks slowly this morning, Trump punched all the way through. Without live fact-checking, he had a field day. He spoke about abortion, immigration and how he could solve the Ukraine conflict before he would be sworn in. For the audience, how much of Trump’s statements were true could be discussed later. Today he was confident.

Neither candidate laid out new policies, with most of the exchanges consisting of attacks on the other's record.

Both candidates tried to defend their performance on the key issue of the race for voters: the economy.

Biden’s approach was to blame Trump. The ex-president, he said, left him a “terrible” economy. He said he was working to bring down inflation.

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he participates in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with US President Joe Biden at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Trump replied that inflation was “absolutely killing us” and accused Biden of doing nothing.

Optics play a big role in any debate or for any person in the public eye. And the Americans can be unforgiving if their candidate comes across as weak or unable to perform key duties.

Debating as an art

Debating is also an art. The seasoned debater can answer a question without answering it.

Ask Trump. He was asked about the Israel-Gaza war and the Palestinian state. His reply was about Ukraine.

When prompted again, Trump accused Biden of not helping Israel “finish the job” against Hamas.

“He doesn’t want to do it. 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.

Golfing prowess

When the candidates squabbled over their golf handicaps, I just wished the debate came to an end.

“He challenged me to a golf match. He can’t hit a ball 50 yards,” said Trump, on one of the few occasions the two men directly addressed each other

Trump’s own vitality was never in question, he boasted, insisting “I’m in as good a shape as I was years ago.”

Not to be outdone, Biden insisted he was game on the green.

“I’d be happy to have a driving contest,” he said. “I got my handicap when I was the vice president down to a six.”

Trump scoffed.

“A six handicap?” he snorted. “I’ve seen your swing. I know your swing.”

The US election will not be fought on the golfing green over handicaps or a person’s driving ability. It will be decided by the American people on who they perceive as the best person to lead them for the next four years.

If this debate is a yardstick, they will have plenty to think about before the polls in November.