May 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How Biden hedged his bet on Trump debates

This is them

Photographer: Jim Bourg/Reuters/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At 81, President Biden is betting big on his ability to square off with a rival who regularly questions his mental acuity and physical stamina.

Why it matters: Behind Biden's presidential debate gambit are a series of calculated hedges to minimize potential damage.

  • Look past Biden's taunts and Trump's trolls.
  • If Biden always planned to debate, he got what he wanted: two debates instead of the proposed three, no live audience, and plenty of time before Election Day to make up for any mistakes.
  • The early timing also gives Trump the ability to make up for any large errors on the stage.

Zoom in: The June 27 CNN debate will be the earliest debate in presidential history by nearly three months.

  • The ABC News debate is scheduled for Sept. 10, well before the traditional October debate season.
  • The long summer gap will give the Biden campaign time to repair any potential damage ahead of November.

The other side: Trump is claiming victory for pushing Biden to debate, but he wants more of them, at least one a month until Election Day, his campaign's top advisers proposed Wednesday.

  • Trump accepted on Wednesday a Fox News debate offer in October — which Biden has not.

Zoom out: Biden's effort to reduce the number and minimize the impact of the debates doesn't speak to a campaign brimming with confidence about its candidate's ability to defend his record in primetime.

  • Democrats are acutely aware of the risks of appearing on stage with Trump.
  • "I myself would never recommend going on stage with Donald Trump, but the president has decided that's what he wants to do," former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN.
  • Biden's team had previously been noncommittal on debates, but Biden told radio host Howard Stern in late April that he would appear with Trump. "I'm happy to debate him," he said.

But there are different views on the dangers of full-on ducking the debate.

  • "For Biden, not debating is a far bigger risk," said Robert Gibbs, President Obama's first press secretary. "He gets the debate with the rules and no audience he wanted."
  • "If he performs well, that risk can really pay off," he said.

Between the lines: Incumbent presidents tend to do poorly in their first debate as they are unused to being challenged after four years in the Oval Office.

Jeff Zients has been warned to clear Biden's schedule for debate prep, but Biden has a busy June.

  • In the middle of the month, Biden will fly to southern Italy for one of his favorite aspects of the presidency: A G7 summit, where Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war and the global economy will demand his attention.
  • His son, Hunter, will likely be in-and-out of federal court on gun and tax charges.
  • His old chief of staff, Ron Klain, a veteran Democratic debate coach, has been brought in to push Biden to be in his best debate shape.

Flashback: Ten days separated the late President Reagan's widely-panned first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale and his second one, where the 73-year-old incumbent vowed not to exploit his opponent's "youth and inexperience."

  • Both were in October in an era with less early voting.
  • Reagan was able to rehabilitate himself and win in a landslide.
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