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

“President Biden made his terms clear for two one-on-one debates, and Donald Trump accepted those terms,” said Biden-Harris campaign chair Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. “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.“

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.

Former President Donald Trump outside Manhattan criminal court in New York this week.Credit: AP

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 per cent of registered voters viewed Biden favourably, compared with 45 per cent for Trump. But while a majority of voters have consistently seen Trump unfavourably 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 January 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 per cent 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 on stage 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 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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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