Debating a Racist Bully: How Can Biden Improve?

Now we know what a Trump versus Biden debate looks like. And with Trump at his ugly and petulant worst, it’s even more painfully hard to watch than anticipated.

If you felt a tight knot of worry and fear deep down in the pit of your stomach, you weren’t alone.

It’s incredibly disturbing to see a proudly racist US president bullying his way through a debate to suppress voting, spew conspiracies, and tell white supremacists to “stand back and stand by.” Trump’s clearly trying to carve a path of destruction in a desperate attempt to scrape his way into a second term in office. 

This was a debate without a winner. Americans have lost so much over the past four years of Trump’s presidency – from a sense of decency in the White House, to all the families who’ve lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Against such an incumbent and in a frightfully competitive race, how did Joe Biden do? And what does he need to do better next time to increase the likelihood that Trump gets trounced?

Biden’s game plan

Every debater has a checklist they need to accomplish on stage. And Biden needed to do at least three things.

  1. Remain standing and exceed expectations: Going into the debate, Biden needed to surprise viewers in a good way with a solid performance. He needed to hold Trump accountable for his lies and failures. And find an effective way of dealing with whatever attacks and lies Trump threw his way.
  • Remind viewers of what a president can be: Biden needed to be the adult in the room, showing that he’s a decent, steady-handed, presidential kind of guy. And make viewers long for a president they might not agree with – but can actually respect.
  • Relate every issue to people’s lives: Biden needed to show that the difference between him and Trump is simple. Biden cares about people, understands the injustices and struggles that folks face every day, and Trump couldn’t care less about anyone other than himself.

Biden’s most effective moments

There’s a lot of room for Biden to improve. But he was at his best when he drew on his natural empathy and showed the impact of Trump’s choices on people’s lives.

At key moments, Biden turned straight to the camera and spoke to viewers at home. In a deeply moving moment he asked how many people had an empty chair at the breakfast table because they’ve lost a member of their family to COVID.

How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID? How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them, you had a nurse holding a phone up so you could in fact say goodbye?

On the economy, Biden tried to connect with voters by pointing out that billionaires are doing great during the crisis – in fact, they’re socking away billions in profits – but ordinary families are struggling more than ever. Biden hit the mark whenever he pressed the point that Trump has no plan to help you.

Biden also skillfully turned questions of process into real life issues that matter. He turned a question about the Supreme Court nomination fight into a matter of whether millions of people will have health coverage – or lose it.

And Biden delivered a strong call to Americans to cast their ballots. “Show up and vote,” he said. “You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote… [Trump] cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.”

How can Biden improve?

Biden and Trump are scheduled to face off another two times before election day. And here’s how Biden can improve on his first performance:

Show that Trump is serving himself – and hurting everyone else. Biden needs to drive the message that he’s the undisputed champion for workers and their families. He needs to take every opportunity to connect and pivot every attack from Trump into talking about how Trump is hurting people.

One area he can do this is in sharpening his attack on Trump by reminding people that Trump’s economy isn’t working for them. They deserve a president who cares less about the stock market and more about workers’ wages and health care.

Remind people how dangerous Trump is proving himself to be. Trump is determined to cause more pain, not less. He sees a path for himself through other people’s suffering. And after giving his orders to the Proud Boys on primetime television, Trump has once again shown every American that he condones and endorses white supremacy. 

While Trump keeps trying to depict a dangerous and violent future for America if Biden wins, Biden himself needs to keep the focus on how Trump is putting people’s lives at risk right now. And he needs to motivate every American who is disgusted by violence and racism – Democrats, Republicans, independents, and non-voters alike – to get out and cast their ballots.  

Talk about a better future – and how America gets there.

Biden argued through the primaries that he’s a bridge to the future and a transition candidate. Unfortunately, in this first debate, Biden took the bait and sought to separate himself from some of the most forward-looking people and most energized movements in the Democratic coalition – Bernie Sanders, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal. 

Even if they’re not Biden’s policies, he needs to reassure voters that he has a clear vision and a path to a better future. In doing that he can draw a sharp contrast to Trump who has no plans beyond securing a second term. 

Biden can’t afford to be a champion for politics as usual. He needs to motivate Democrats, and especially younger voters, by being a champion for change to make people’s lives better – now and for the next generation.

Biden will have two more opportunities to take on Trump and show Americans why they need to vote. The next debates will take place on October 15 and October 22. And the only vice-presidential debate will happen on October 7.

One can only hope that the next round doesn’t leave us all feeling like we’ve been punched in the gut.