5 Takeaways from the First Trump-Biden 2024 Debate

Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post
Inside the press filing center, a TV shows the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections between former president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden at CNN’s studios in Atlanta on Thursday.

President Biden and former president Donald Trump faced off in the first of two 2024 presidential debates Thursday night in Atlanta.

The unusually early first debate came as Biden appears to struggle in the rematch of the 2020 campaign and as Republicans are buoyant about Trump’s chances. But polls suggest it’s still a close race in the key states.

So what did we learn? And what marked the first big clash between the two candidates?

Below are our takeaways.

1. Biden was rough

Perhaps the biggest question heading into the night was how Biden would manage, given voters’ strong concerns about his age and sharpness, as well as his campaign’s previous reluctance to debate.

Biden gave an energetic State of the Union address in March. But it didn’t appear to allay many of those concerns, and jousting with an opponent at a debate – rather than giving a scripted speech – is a different animal.

Thursday wasn’t as strong a performance. At points, it was downright rough.

Biden came out raspy and with relatively little vigor or inflection in his voice. He stumbled over his words and lines of argument. Perhaps the most striking example came as he tried to make an early point about health care, failing to finish his thought before his time was up.

“[We’re] making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with -” Biden said, before trailing off and adding, “the covid – excuse me, with – dealing with everything we have to do with – look – if – we finally beat Medicare.”

It’s at this point that the moderator said his time was up.

Later on, while talking about the border, Biden said, “I’m going to continue to move until we get the total ban on the – the total initiative, relative to what we can do with more border patrol and more asylum officers.”

Trump shot back, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Later in the debate, Biden sought to get a little feistier, referring to Trump as a “whiner” over his statements that Jan. 6 defendants were too harshly treated. He called him a “loser” and a “child.” But the points didn’t land with much force, just like much of Biden’s performance.

Shortly after the debate, Democrats set about fretting about Biden’s candidacy in a way we haven’t seen before – one top former Biden White House aide called his performance “really disappointing” – and the worries will probably continue in the days ahead.

2. Biden got some rare traction on Jan. 6, Trump’s legal problems

If there were good moments for Biden, it’s when the conversation turned to democracy, Jan. 6 and Trump’s legal problems.

Biden made a point to highlight Trump’s felony convictions – “The only person on the stage who’s a convicted felon right now is the man I’m looking at right now” – and cite the substance of the former president’s other problems. He mentioned “sex with a porn star” (the underlying alleged event in Trump’s Manhattan conviction) and “molesting a woman in public” (which Trump has been found liable for in the E. Jean Carroll civil case).

Biden also sought to put Trump on the spot over his suggestions that Jan. 6 defendants have been persecuted, something the American people broadly disagree with.

“The idea that those people are patriots? Come on,” Biden said.

Toward the end, Biden told Trump that following his 2020 loss – after which he sought to overturn the results, leading to two of his indictments – “something snapped in you.”

Trump didn’t have great responses, except to cite his claims that his cases have been brought by a weaponized justice system – something that, like Jan. 6 pardons, Americans aren’t onboard with. He didn’t really stand by his past comments about Jan. 6 pardons. At one point, he felt compelled to deny having had sex with Stormy Daniels (“I didn’t have sex with a porn star, No. 1,” he said.)

While Trump’s Manhattan conviction doesn’t appear to have hurt him much so far, it’s also evident that many Americans – especially casual political-watchers – are unfamiliar with many of these specifics.

But this was largely the exception. Despite Biden’s hopes to turn the 2024 election into a choice and even a referendum on Trump, much of the debate wound up focusing on Biden.

3. Trump unleashed many false claims

It’s no surprise at this point, but Trump’s performance included his usual stream of false and misleading claims.

They included his false claim to having capped insulin costs before Biden did; blue states executing babies after birth; there being no terrorist attacks on his watch; Biden’s wanting to quadruple people’s taxes; and Biden’s having indicted him. (There is no evidence of Biden’s involvement in the cases.)

Biden had a few, too, including at one point mixing up when Trump was accused of having his tryst with Daniels. (He said Melania Trump was pregnant; in fact, she had a young child).

4. A great debate it wasn’t

There were plenty of questions before the debate about whether the format would work. In addition to being very early, the debate featured no audience and a mute button if the candidates talked over one another.

The format mostly worked okay. But that didn’t make it a great debate.

Whether because of the mute button or not, we avoided a replay of the messy food fight of a first 2020 debate. The candidates seemed to understand that talking when it wasn’t their turn wouldn’t do any good.

The lack of an audience also meant they weren’t playing to a crowd – and the crowd wasn’t influencing the affair.

But even without all the shouting and theater, the debate was hardly a substantial master class. It really didn’t get into much of a contrast on the issues.

Trump largely filibustered, repeating his false claims, mostly without fact-checking by Biden and not really at all by the debate moderators (who decided beforehand that it wasn’t their role). Biden struggled to make his points and drive the contrasts in a way that deprived the proceedings of much flow, though he did counter some of Trump’s claims.

It’s not clear any format could have made for a more compelling debate. Many of the problems traced to the candidates themselves. But it just wasn’t the kind of debate that seems likely to whet people’s appetites for the campaign.

Toward the end of the debate, the two candidates saw fit to argue about their golf games, with Biden talking about his drive and handicap and Trump casting doubt on his ability.

“Let’s not act like children,” Trump eventually said.

“You are a child,” Biden responded.

It was a fitting moment.

5. Trump finally takes an abortion position

Trump has strained to avoid getting pinned down on his abortion position, seeking to say merely that it should be a state’s choice and trying to leave it at that.

But on Thursday night, Trump did – at long last and after blowing his previous deadline for offering a position – finally weigh in on the abortion pill mifepristone.

“First of all, the Supreme Court just approved the abortion pill, and I agree with their decision to have done that, and I will not block it,” Trump said.

It’s a significant statement, given Democrats have cautioned that a second Trump administration could target the abortion pill using an antiquated federal law. It’s the latest signal that Trump fears what restricting abortion in a post-Roe v. Wade world could mean for his candidacy. Imagine even a few years ago that a Republican presidential candidate would say he supports the abortion pill.