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Editorial: The Biden-Trump debate next month is far more crucial than your ordinary presidential face-off

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

Polls pretty consistently have told the same story for months now. President Joe Biden is unpopular — his latest approval ratings are in the mid-30s, perilous territory for an incumbent seeking a second term — and if the election were held now he almost surely would lose to his predecessor, Donald Trump.

That reality makes the June 27 debate between Biden and Trump arguably far more critical for the president than his challenger. But it matters greatly for both men, potentially allowing Trump to command his podium and recover from those unflattering courtroom pictures of an impotent man. Indeed, a good case can be made that this will be the most consequential single presidential debate in living memory.

The unusually early date for a presidential debate was set at the Biden campaign’s insistence, even at the expense of torpedoing the stated wishes of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has performed years of fine service. That’s indicative of how much Biden and his team recognize the severity of his situation and view the debate as a chance to reverse his fortunes and reset the negative narratives about his presidency.

Why Biden is viewed so negatively is a contested matter. Clearly, his advanced age is a major political liability. Democrats quickly respond that Trump is merely four years younger than Biden, and also showing signs his age is catching up with him. But a majority of American voters, for whatever reason, seem to believe it’s a bigger issue for Biden than Trump, who usually appears to be more energetic. Likewise, perceptions of the health of the economy are hurting Biden.

There’s also intense disagreement about whether the polls accurately reflect the current state of play. Biden campaign officials, and the president himself, generally have been dismissive, arguing that pollsters’ track records over the tumultuous time beginning in 2016 haven’t been all that reliable. But even as they try to calm anxious rank-and-file Democrats, no one in Bidenworld is saying the election won’t be extremely close.

The debate is occurring early enough that, should Biden stumble badly or seriously otherwise underwhelm, Democrats still will have time before their August convention to consider internally whether the president is their best chance for holding the White House. The chances of that happening currently are very slim indeed, but that’s not stopping the talk and conjecture.

That the speculation still is occurring at this juncture is in itself remarkable. There is still a chance that the Chicago convention in August will be more exciting than we think.

No Democratic presidents running for reelection since Jimmy Carter has experienced the kind of skepticism and anxiety with which Biden now must contend. Carter faced a bitterly personal primary challenge from Ted Kennedy that lasted until the Democratic convention. Before Carter, Lyndon Johnson famously bowed out in the middle of the primaries in 1968 as the Vietnam War raged.

 

Biden, of course, shows no signs of repeating Johnson’s eleventh-hour exit. But it should be disquieting to Democrats that Biden’s recent approval rating of 36% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll published May 21 — tying the lowest rating in that poll for Biden, coming nearly two years ago — actually is 2 points lower than Carter’s popularity at the same point in his presidency. Everyone knows what happened in November of 1980.

It’s Biden’s good fortune that his opponent isn’t Ronald Reagan — or someone with those political skills. It’s Donald Trump, who arguably carries more baggage than any major-party nominee in American history.

But the concern for Democrats at this point is that the public’s views of Biden are more or less locked in. It’s striking that Democratic Senate candidates in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Nevada are outperforming Biden’s polling by high single digits or more. The polling data suggests that Biden’s issues are specific to his candidacy for the presidency rather than a reflection of how Americans perceive the Democratic Party as a whole. That’s all the more reason why his debate performance will be crucial; a weak performance will ignite the question of whether Biden ought to continue to top the Democratic ticket.

Biden must repeat what he achieved at his State of the Union address in March when he vigorously delivered a spirited — pugnacious even — defense of his record. He must do so while sitting across from a rival he clearly detests and taking care not to be thrown off his game by the typical debate chaos Trump likes to create.

Presidential debates always are highly anticipated affairs. But often they don’t live up to the advance excitement, and election arcs don’t change much afterward. That may happen again with the first Biden-Trump square-off in spite of the higher-than-normal stakes.

If it does, that will spell big trouble for Biden. Come next month, he will need a knockout victory under those conditions of his own choosing.

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