by Lincoln Institute | June 13, 2024

In less than two weeks, Joe Biden and Doanld Trump will square off in the first head-to-head debate in the 2024 Presidential election season. It’s possible but not likely that RFK Jr. will join them, but even if he does, all eyes will be on the Biden versus Trump dynamics. What should we expect, and what will be the significance of the face-off?

“This is going to be the most important debate since JFK-Richard Nixon”, said Frank Luntz on NBC. … [He] said the first debate could provide a pivotal moment … in a race riddled with accusations from each side…  We will all get a chance to see whether Joe Biden is as feeble as Trump says he is [and] we will all get a chance to see whether Donald Trump is as unhinged as Joe Biden says he is,” Luntz said.

Democrats hope for a performance from Biden that echoes the energy of his State of the Union address that many Republicans thought may have been juiced up with some sort of drug and vitamin cocktail. Republicans expect and hope to exploit any stumble Biden makes that cannot be sympathetically dismissed as a mere stutter. And Democrats hope that Trump will come across as mean and nasty, promising retribution on all who he feels have wronged him. Which is more likely to have an impact on the voting public? I expect that even though Biden is increasingly feeble, he will be able to focus himself well enough to get through the debate without a major mental incident. Trump, on the other hand, is virtually certain to show a mean streak, but the question is how far will he go? If he’s merely assertive and pugnacious without triggering sympathy for his victim, he’ll win the debate. But if he goes too far, then people who want a clean fighter rather than a dirty one may begin to back away.

Republicans, and I am one of them, hope that Biden either overdoes his attempt to look energetic, reminding us of Howard Dean’s fateful scream in 2004,  or just looks lost enough from time to time to reinforce concerns that he’s already too impaired in 2024, and that with four years in the most stressful job on earth, he will become so obviously out of it that he could not credibly stay in office for a full term.

As Reuters has pointed out in their recent article on the debate, “both candidates are known for their tempers and impatience. They are used to commanding the stage and getting their way. Both have been president and likely see little reason to yield to the other… Biden rattled Trump during their first debate in the 2020 race, leading Trump into what was viewed as a poor performance …Trump may try to get under Biden’s skin by mentioning the legal problems of the president’s son, Hunter, who was convicted this week of lying about his drug use to illegally buy a gun. Joe Biden is well practiced at deflecting such comments, but viewers will be looking for any sign that the president cannot maintain his poise under fire…

“Both Biden and Trump have a history of making factual errors and exaggerated boasts that may not be immediately apparent to debate viewers.

“For Trump, the danger lies in saying things that underscore Biden’s argument that he is a threat to democratic norms. Trump, for example, has suggested he will use the Justice Department to target his political enemies.

I think it’s safe to say that there will be two waves of public reactions to the debate: one immediate, and one a week or so later, as fact-checkers comb through the transcripts and publish their analysis. Frank Luntz may indeed be right in calling it the most important televised debate in history. As a politically-engaged reader of, you should record it on your DVR so that you can see it more than once.

(Colin Hanna is President of Let Freedom Ring, USA.)