How did Trump and Biden do in the presidential debate? 3 takeaways from 2024's 1st big clash.

A lot has changed in the 1,344 days since President Biden and former President Donald Trump last debated.

Biden won the White House. Trump refused to accept his loss. Trump’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol. The COVID-19 pandemic came and went. Inflation climbed to 9.1%, then fell to just over 3%. Russia invaded Ukraine. Hamas invaded Israel. Israel invaded Gaza. Biden turned 81. Trump turned 78. Trump was criminally indicted four times, and convicted once.

Yet somehow, the campaign seems to have picked up right where it left off. Biden is the Democratic nominee, Trump is the Republican nominee — and despite everything that’s happened, they’re still deadlocked in the polls.

Which is why Thursday night’s rematch at the CNN studios in Atlanta was such a big deal. In a world of partisan echo chambers and social media silos — a world where most Americans have dismissed the 2024 race as a tired rerun and tuned out its overfamiliar protagonists — a live, televised debate is one of the last moments with the power to actually change anyone’s vote.

So how did Trump and Biden do? Here are three takeaways from this year’s first presidential face-off.

Biden speaks at a podium.
Biden speaks during the debate. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

In truth, presidential debates aren’t really debates at all. They’re more like media manipulation moments: high-profile opportunities for the candidates to seize the national spotlight, however briefly, and use it for their own purposes.

Biden’s mission Thursday night was high-risk, high-reward: to appear under the hot TV lights for 90 unscripted minutes and show concerned Americans — many of whom have seen little of him recently, except in selectively edited online videos — that he’s not too old to serve another term.

Because Biden isn’t just the oldest president in U.S. history; he’s asking the country to keep him in the White House until the age of 86 — about eight years longer than Ronald Reagan, who left office just before his 78th birthday.

Even Biden’s supporters are admitting that he struggled Thursday night. Reportedly fighting a cold, the president looked uneasy and sounded hoarse. Right from the start, he was tripping over words and trying to cover his verbal missteps; at one point, he lost his train of thought entirely.

“We’ve been able to make sure,” Biden said, “all those things we need to do — child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our health care system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the COVID ... excuse me, dealing with everything we have to do with…”

Biden looked down. “If,” he continued, pausing a few more seconds, “we finally beat Medicare.”

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump snapped a few minutes later. “I don’t think he knows either.”

Biden sharpened his focus as the debate wore on. “You’re the sucker and you’re the loser,” he told Trump at one point, turning his opponent’s alleged words about fallen U.S. soldiers against him. “You have the morals of an alley cat,” he said later.

But these debates have long been decided not by who scores the most points but by who creates the most memorable moments — for better or for worse. Think of Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) or Rick Perry in 2012 (“Oops”).

Fair? Not really. But that’s how U.S. politics works. And it’s not hard to imagine a new round of unflattering Biden clips circulating soon — along with a new round of Democratic anxiety about his prospects in November.

Trump on the debate stage.
Trump on the debate stage on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

“This guy is three years younger, and I think a lot less competent,” Biden said when the CNN moderators asked how he might reassure voters about his age.

If the debate were being judged solely on the basis of who seemed younger — more “with it” — it would be no contest. Trump was his usual bombastic self.

But Biden was right: There are other measures of a president. On the merits, Trump didn’t have a great debate Thursday night either. About halfway through, he actually said the words, “I didn’t have sex with a porn star” — a first for a presidential candidate.

Overall, Trump’s strategy was simply to spew more shallow superlatives than anyone could keep up with. His economy was “the greatest economy in the history of our country.” His environmental numbers were “the best environmental numbers ever.” His tax cut was "the largest tax cut in history.” Overturning Roe v. Wade was “something that everybody wanted.” And so on.

The problem is that much of what Trump said was untrue.

Biden tried to fact-check his opponent in real time. “I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my life,” Biden said after Trump accused him of enabling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Every single thing he said is a lie,” Biden said after Trump attacked his position on veterans’ benefits. “It isn’t debunked,” Biden said when Trump tried to deny that Biden's 2020 run was inspired by the deadly white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, Va. three years earlier. “I ran because I was worried a guy like this could be president.”

But Biden wasn’t deft enough to pivot from correcting falsehoods to making a clear, proactive case for his own campaign. And the debate’s polite new format — with each candidate’s microphone muted when it was the other’s turn to speak — didn’t do him any favors.

Meanwhile, the moderators floated above the fray, declining to speak up and set the record straight — unlike in earlier, more fluid debates.

As a result, Trump largely skated by on style, making little effort to appeal to swing voters who couldn’t care less about, say, Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Trump gestures as he speaks at the podium.
Trump speaks during the presidential debate on Thursday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Which isn’t to say Thursday’s debate was completely devoid of substance. One particular exchange on abortion stood out.

Clearly rattled by a string of Republican losses in states with hard-line abortion bans on the ballot, Trump made a point of saying he wouldn’t “block” the “abortion pill” mifepristone if reelected; noted that he supports “exceptions” for “rape, incest and life of the mother” because “you gotta get elected”; and tried to frame his role in overturning Roe v. Wade and sending the issue back to the states as a win-win for everybody.

“The country is coming together,” Trump claimed.

But Biden — who is hoping that opposition to the end of Roe motivates otherwise unenthusiastic Democrats to turn out in November — wasn’t having it.

“That’s like sending civil rights back to the states,” the president said. “If I’m elected, I’m gonna restore Roe v. Wade.

“What’s he going to do if MAGA Republicans [in Congress] pass a six-week, seven-week ban?” Biden continued. “He’ll sign it. I’ll veto it.”

It was a reminder during a difficult night that Biden still has the upper hand on some issues. The question now is whether his push to debate earlier than ever before will pay off — both by giving voters more time to remember things like that, and to forget the rest of his performance.

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  • CNN moderators in Biden-Trump debate: It almost didn't matter that they were on stage. "Did the moderators play a role? ... Their problem was that, more times than not, the questions were ignored as the two candidates continued to squabble at their own pace." [Associated Press]

  • Swing state voters react to presidential debate, Biden's weak performance. "At a watch party organized by the Biden campaign, some voters were adamant that Biden had a strong debate performance, while others expressed reservations." [ABC News]

  • Who won the Biden-Trump debate? Biden's freeze draws age concerns. "The biggest moment of the night came early, when Biden froze for several seconds while answering a question about the economy." [USA Today]

  • Fact Focus: Here's a look at some of the false claims made during Biden and Trump's first debate. "President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump traded barbs and a variety of false and misleading information." [Associated Press]

  • After a devastating debate performance, Biden aides try to reassure panicky Democrats. "Biden aides stressed that whatever happened on the debate stage, the fundamentals of the race are unchanged." [NBC News]

  • Here's why it would be tough for Democrats to replace Joe Biden on the presidential ticket. "Every state has already held its presidential primary. Democratic rules mandate that the delegates Biden won remain bound to support him at the party's upcoming national convention unless he tells them he’s leaving the race." [Associated Press]

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo Yews; photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images