Debate takeaways: Biden confirms some voter fears as Trump leans into grievances (2024)

ATLANTA — President Joe Biden failed to mitigate his biggest liability in his re-election bid at the CNN debate Thursday, while former President Donald Trump doubled down on his grievances and skipped past opportunities to cover his own vulnerabilities.

Biden's biggest weakness — voter concerns about his age and sharpness, according to polls — was on display throughout the more than 90-minute debate as he struggled through answers and failed to deliver the energetic performance allies believe he needed. And Trump had no new answers for voters about the issues on which he's weakest, including his felony conviction, his role in overturning Roe v. Wade and his actions on Jan. 6, 2021.

The first showdown between Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, in 2024 comes early in the election year, giving voters an opportunity to see the president and his challenger side-by-side. Here's what they saw — and what it means for the campaign.

Biden struggles out of the gate

The first presidential debate is often rough for incumbents. It was particularly rough for the 81-year-old Biden out of the gate.

When he began Thursday night, his voice was hoarse, his throat didn't sound clear, and he started out speaking softly and struggling through some of his responses. His voice cracked throughout the debate. Biden's campaign later said he had a cold.

In one particularly notable gaffe, Biden stumbled through a response to an early question about rising costs, ending with: “We finally beat Medicare.” The Trump campaign mockingly highlighted the clip on his social media platform, Truth Social.

During a clash over immigration, Biden stammered through some words while expressing his support for tougher border laws, to which Trump responded: “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said, either.” Trump repeatedly accused Biden of implementing a weak border policy that he said has worsened crime in the U.S.

Debate takeaways: Biden confirms some voter fears as Trump leans into grievances (1)

Even Biden’s closest allies said it was a bad night for him. “It was a really disappointing debate performance from Joe Biden,” former Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield said on CNN.

Biden did find his footing when he was speaking about foreign policy, protecting NATO and standing up to Russia. He also tore into Trump over Jan. 6 and blasted him for saying there were “very fine people” on both sides when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Later, when he was asked whether he has a vision to protect Social Security, Biden said: "Yes, make the very wealthy begin to pay their fair share."

Toward the end, Biden defended running for re-election at his age when the moderators asked him to address voter concerns. “This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent,” Biden said.

Trump descends into grievances

Trump's long-standing tendency to retreat into airing personal grievances, often at the expense of defending himself or his record, reared up throughout the evening.

When CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash asked him to address voter concerns about his actions on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, Trump took the opportunity to blast the House Jan. 6 “un-select committee” and its “two horrible Republicans.” When Biden brought up Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels, Trump took the bait: “I didn’t have sex with a p*rn star, No. 1,” he said.

Trump was also evasive when he was asked repeatedly whether he will accept the 2024 election result.

“If it’s a fair and legal and good election, absolutely,” Trump said, repeating his false claim that the 2020 election result was illegitimate: “The fraud and everything else was ridiculous.” In response, Biden mocked him. “You’re a whiner,” he said. “You can’t stand a loss; something snapped in you when you lost last time.”

Ten minutes into the debate, Trump launched a groundless claim that Biden is weaponizing American justice against him. He called it "a system that was rigged and disgusting," as he faces criminal charges across multiple jurisdictions brought by independent prosecutors. Toward the end, Trump made the same allusion again: “He indicted me because I was his opponent.”

Trump also brought up the Russia investigation — “Russia, Russia, Russia,” as he called it — as well as Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s laptop computer.

And Trump leaned into his promise of retribution if he wins the presidency this fall. “He could be a convicted felon as soon as he gets out of office,” Trump said of Biden. Trump also said, "My retribution is my success."

Clashes over abortion, taxes and more define the policy stakes

Trump embraced his role in appointing the three "great" Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade while repeatedly — and falsely — claiming that there was complete consensus about ending the federal right and returning abortion policy to legislators in 2022.

“Everybody wanted to get it back to the states,” Trump said — polls show voters supported Roe v. Wade by large margins. “This is something everybody wanted.” He added that “every legal scholar wanted it that way” — many of them disagreed.

And Trump embraced an argument popular among social conservatives, arguing that Democrats were the real radicals on abortion by refusing to support federal restrictions. After Trump claimed that Biden supports abortions "after birth," Biden retorted by saying he favors only restoration of Roe v. Wade, which allowed for some limitations. “We are not for late-term abortion. Period. Period. Period,” Biden said.

Trump focused significant attention on the border and immigration, criticizing rising migration during Biden's term.

And he also called for extending his administration's 2017 tax cuts, which expire at the end of 2025. Biden promised, repeatedly, to raise taxes on the rich, saying Trump “rewarded the wealthy — he had the largest tax cut in American history.”

Biden’s prepared zingers

Biden’s sharpest moments came when he delivered what appeared to be prepared one-liners at Trump, often calling him a liar or a felon and frequently dismissing his claims with a dismissive grin.

“The only person on this stage who’s a convicted felon is the man I’m looking at right now,” Biden said, drawing a nod from Trump.

When Trump attacked his record on immigration, Biden said, “Once again, he’s exaggerating, he’s lying.” His other lines included: “Every single thing he said is a lie. Every single one.” And: “I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my whole life.”

At one moment, Biden attacked Trump for calling service members “losers” and “suckers,” according to reporting by The Atlantic. “My son was not a loser. He was not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser,” Biden said. (Trump responded by questioning the magazine’s credibility.)

When Trump said Biden has “become like a Palestinian,” Biden replied: “I’ve never heard so much foolishness.”

And Trump brought some prepared lines of his own, including one at the end, when he argued the U.S. is “a failing nation, but it’s not going to be failing anymore — we’re going to make it great again.”

“We’re living in hell,” Trump said. “The whole country is exploding because of you.”

Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

Debate takeaways: Biden confirms some voter fears as Trump leans into grievances (2024)
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