This week, the first presidential debate of the general election will take place. Voters generally like debates because it is their only opportunity to see and directly compare the candidates next to each other. Debates oftentimes have the most impact when they happen for the first time in a country. That’s a while ago in the U.S.
Conventional wisdom has it that the incumbent president is at a disadvantage at the first debate. One remembers Barack Obama’s mediocre performance in 2012. Indeed, compared to the challenger, who is coming out of a primary cycle, the incumbent president is out of practice debating. And in general, presidents are not really used to having somebody stand next to them and disagreeing with everything they say for 90 minutes in a row. I have worked for two presidents and can confirm: the last words when speaking to a president are usually “Yes, Mr. President” (one of the two was a woman, so conversations would usually end with “Yes, Madame President).
So far, that’s the general belief, which is of course turned upside down with Donald Trump. He has shown in 2016 that he does not respect any rules, stretches facts, and constantly interrupts and ridicules his opponent. There’s a saying in the U.S.: Never debate an idiot, you’ll always lose. Since Trump is behind in most nationwide surveys, I expect him to be even more on the offense on Tuesday night. He has to use the debates strategically to change the dynamics of the race. It might therefore indeed take Biden a lot of coolness, command of the moment and maybe some humor to deal with Trump. During the primaries, Biden’s performance during the debates was never really good, but also never really bad. The debate will also be a challenge for the moderator, which will be Chris Wallace from FOX News. He can be an insisting interviewer and is known to be more independent than other FOX News anchors.