The Worst Part Of The 2024 Presidential Debate Wasn't Anything Either Candidate Said

When it was announced that President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump would debate in June, it marked an unusual push forward in the election cycle. Neither candidate would be formally nominated by their party conventions. But Biden accepted CNN's offer for the early debate, with Trump quick to agree. By mid-May, the dates were set to two debates: June 27 on CNN, September 10 on ABC.

In arranging the debates with the networks, both campaigns went without the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The Biden campaign found the CPD's handling of the 2020 debates and its demand for a live audience inadequate to deliver a quality debate that wouldn't devolve into spectacle. A new format without crowds, the campaign felt, would help to draw a sharper contrast between the candidates. President Biden could focus on his policy record and attack Trump as a serial liar, narcissist, trigger of the January 6 insurrection, and — thanks to the May 30 verdict in his New York trial — the first former president convicted of a crime.

Biden spent days preparing for the debate at Camp David. Trump forewent mock debates altogether. Going into June 27, there was hot debate within the press about how much, if any, effect the event could have on a largely deadlocked campaign. Journalists wondered how voters might react to a fresh look at Trump without cutaways, or whether Biden would target his rival's notorious Project 2025, which aims to radically transform American government. But as the debate wrapped, the immediate conversation wasn't on the substance of either candidate's words — it was on the stuttering, hoarse performance of Joe Biden.

Joe Biden's performance was widely panned

Concerns about Joe Biden's age and stamina have been ongoing throughout the 2024 campaign. Even well-received addresses like the 2024 State of the Union were unable to dispel the perception that, whatever his personal qualities, he was too old to run again. Going into the June 27 debate, there was an expectation among many that, should Biden give a robust enough performance to allay those fears, he would do well in a contest with Donald Trump.

Within minutes, the Biden campaign's hopes began to collapse. His voice was hoarse and his walk was slow. Sources reported during the debate that the president had a cold, but he also seemed to struggle with some of his responses. He fumbled over words, confused figures, and trailed off in his answers. When he wasn't speaking, he appeared tired, even dazed.

Biden seemed strongest when he challenged Trump directly. He grew animated over Trump's alleged comments on World War I casualties being "suckers and losers," his civil and criminal convictions, and the former president's role in January 6. But the overwhelming response among pundits was that Biden had given a shambling performance. Reporters across networks said on-air that Democrats at all levels were shocked and dismayed by how the president fared, to the point that discussions about trying to replace him at the head of the ticket were underway.

Donald Trump's facial expressions drew criticism

Joe Biden's performance was the talk of the nation's pundit class in the immediate aftermath of the June 27 presidential debate. But Donald Trump's questionable facial expressions also stood out — notably his pout and smirking. Speaking to the New York Post, body language expert and Carnegie Mellon drama professor Miso Wei said the former president would be smart to stop the latter while Biden speaks, as it "sends out a condescending tone." "I am certainly a Trumper, but you couldn't help but feel sorry for Biden," she told the outlet. "It was like your grandfather, you know, he was getting lost in one sentence after another and you had to feel sorry for him, in a way." Elsewhere in a piece for Politico, body language expert Joe Navarro said Trump was using a "deflective pseudo-smile." "This makes the smile look contrived, intended to nonverbally fend off a verbal attack," the ex-FBI agent said. "It's a way to pretend something wasn't hurtful when, in fact, it was."

Trump used similar facial expressions during the 2024 trial that led to his conviction. During an appearance on MSNBC's "Ayman," lawyer and legal analyst David Henderson also suggested the former president would be wise to avoid doing so. "You start whining and making faces and pouting in front of the judge, what tends to happen in a trial is things stop going your way with important evidence rulings that can effect the outcome of the case," he said. Given that Trump repeatedly lied during his presidency, his facial expressions could do more harm than good to an already tarnished image.

Check out how the first televised presidential debate changed history forever.