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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why Biden wanted to debate Trump early, and why Trump said yes

President Joe Biden speaks at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies’ 30th annual gala, in Washington on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Tens of millions of dollars of advertising has not changed President Biden’s polling deficit. Donald Trump’s criminal trial has not altered the race’s trajectory. And the president’s significant cash and infrastructure advantages have yet to pay political dividends. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Reid J. Epstein and Shane Goldmacher

Tens of millions of dollars of advertising has not changed President Joe Biden’s polling deficit. Donald Trump’s criminal trial has not altered the race’s trajectory. And Biden’s significant cash and infrastructure advantages have yet to pay political dividends.

So on Wednesday, the one weekday Trump is not confined to a courtroom, the Biden campaign shook up the race, publicly offering to bring forward the first presidential debate by three months. The move was meant to jolt Americans to attention sooner than later about their consequential choice in 2024. Biden’s advisers have long believed that the dawning realization of a Trump-Biden rematch will be a balm for the president’s droopy approval ratings.

The Trump team swiftly accepted. And Trump proceeded to do Biden the favor of lowering expectations for his performance, writing on social media that his rival was “the WORST debater I have ever faced.” The post was a preview of the insults to come, with Trump accusing the president of being unable to “put two sentences together” and calling him “crooked” three times.

The early-debate gambit from Biden amounted to a public acknowledgment that he is trailing in his reelection bid, and a bet that an accelerated debate timeline will force voters to tune back into politics and confront the possibility of Trump returning to power.

Yet, at the same time, proposing the earliest general-election debate in the history of television is a way to mitigate the risks of placing an 81-year-old president onstage live for 90 minutes. By agreeing to two debates rather than the traditional three, the Biden campaign is limiting his exposure. By scheduling the clashes further out from Election Day, both candidates will have opportunities to recover should they stumble.

Trump, who turns 78 in June and skipped all of the Republican primary debates, has been eager to meet Biden onstage, publicly and privately casting him as diminished since 2020. Within hours of Biden’s announcement Wednesday, both sides had publicly agreed to a debate on June 27 hosted by CNN in Atlanta and one with ABC News on Sept. 10.

There is also peril for Trump because Biden has performed well in key moments when expectations were set low for him — including the 2020 debates and his recent State of the Union addresses.

By accepting Biden’s deal for two debates, Trump lost almost all his leverage to demand more, even as his campaign asked for monthly contests and Trump said he had accepted a Fox News debate in October. The Biden campaign made clear that the president would participate in only two.

“President Biden made his terms clear for two one-on-one debates, and Donald Trump accepted those terms,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the campaign’s chair. “No more games. No more chaos. No more debate about debates.”

The startling speed of the agreement was possible, in part, because senior officials in the two campaigns had been engaged in back-channel talks about debates in advance of the Biden campaign letter, according to four people familiar with the discussions. The two campaigns had a mutual interest in circumventing the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has overseen the events since 1988.

They also both wanted Biden and Trump to face off directly, without Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or other independent or third-party candidates. Kennedy wrote on social media Wednesday that his dominant competitors were “colluding,” adding, “They are afraid I would win.”

In a sign of the preparation before Wednesday’s announcements, the Biden campaign had in recent days moved to reschedule a major New York fundraising event planned for the evening of June 27.

If the June and September events go ahead and no additional debates are scheduled, Americans will be given their side-by-side looks at the two major-party presidential candidates before a vast majority of voters have access to their ballots. It will also give Biden a freer hand to script the final weeks of his last political campaign, focusing on turning out early voters without having to prepare for a high-stakes event on live television.

For both candidates, the earlier dates allow for time to recover from a potentially uneven performance.

Presidential debates remain singular events in American politics. More than 73 million people tuned into the first Biden-Trump debate in 2020, and 84 million watched Trump’s first debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

One unusual aspect of this year’s general-election debates is that both candidates will be relatively rusty at sparring onstage.

Typically, the challenger has honed his skills in a series of primary debates. But Trump chose not to join those this year. The last debate either Trump or Biden attended was their final 2020 one.

Both men are unpopular entering the general election. The latest polls of battleground states by The New York Times, Siena College and The Philadelphia Inquirer showed that 40% of registered voters viewed Biden favorably, compared with 45% for Trump. But while a majority of voters have consistently seen Trump unfavorably for years, Biden was better liked four years ago.

Biden has in recent months adopted a more pugnacious approach to Trump, delivering a major speech about democracy the day before the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, as well as a Trump-focused State of the Union address. Both sought to elevate the contrast between the two candidates and the stakes of this year’s election.

And while Biden trails in public and private polling, his campaign team still believes that he will improve his standing once voters accept the two men as their only realistic presidential options and are reminded of Trump’s record in office — particularly on issues like democracy and abortion rights.

In one reflection of why the Biden campaign thinks Americans need their memories jogged, The Times/Siena/Inquirer poll found that 17% of voters in the top six battleground states believed, incorrectly, that Biden, not Trump, was responsible for ending the constitutional right to abortion.

Trump, for his part, has spent months mocking Biden’s mental acuity and questioning his stamina to be onstage for 90 minutes.

Some of Trump’s allies have come to regret setting the bar so low for Biden in the past, especially before his State of the Union address. The president delivered that speech with more verve than usual only hours after a Trump super PAC suggested in a television ad that Biden was so old, he might not live to survive another term.

Still, prominent supporters of Trump hardly downplayed his chances in the debates. Sean Hannity of Fox News predicted that Trump would “wipe the floor” with Biden. The Trump campaign reposted the clip on social media.

Biden presented his debate challenge Wednesday with the kind of machismo that voters are more accustomed to hearing from Trump. “Well, make my day, pal,” Biden said in a video posted online. He went on to needle Trump for being confined to a courtroom four days a week: “I hear you’re free on Wednesday.”

Biden’s campaign also began selling T-shirts that read: “Free on Wednesdays.” It was a departure from the typical Biden posture of not commenting on Trump’s legal troubles.

Later, when Biden agreed to the Sept. 10 debate, he wrote on social media: “I’ll bring my plane, too. I plan on keeping it for another four years.”

The decision to abandon the debate commission was not a big surprise. Trump has signaled his willingness to meet with or without the commission. And Biden’s team was frustrated, if not furious, that Trump debated Biden in 2020 despite appearing ill, soon thereafter testing positive for the coronavirus, and that Trump’s family had removed their masks while in the audience.

Some Biden advisers have been targeting the commission for the dustbin for even longer. A bipartisan report in 2015 from the Annenberg Public Policy Center — which counted among its authors Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser, and Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff — recommended a thorough overhaul.

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