President Biden, battling a hoarse voice and sometimes stammering, delivered an unsteady performance Thursday evening in his first debate against former President Donald Trump .

It was the sort of showing Democrats feared the incumbent, who polls show faces greater concerns about his age and vitality than Trump, would deliver. It lacked the energy and combativeness Biden mustered for his State of the Union speech earlier this year, an appearance that gave Democrats some optimism about his campaign vigor.

The challenger mostly kept his composure, something for which he isn’t known. The much-talked-about mute buttons—put in place because Trump so frequently talked over Biden when they debated in 2020—didn’t seem to come into play often.

In an election season where many Americans wish they had other options, the face-off allowed the two rivals to highlight the vulnerabilities of their opponent to the slim set of voters who remain undecided.

Their high-stakes meeting in Atlanta, hosted by CNN and moderated by the network’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, delivered some firsts. It was the first modern debate between a sitting and former president, the first featuring a felon, and the first held in a studio with no live audience since the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.

Those factors influenced the dynamics of a 90-minute show that brimmed with insults and policy contrasts, a face-off held much earlier in an election year than is typical. The race is narrowly divided nationally, but Trump leads in several battleground states.

“Biden experienced the worst opening 15 minutes of a presidential debate ever,” said Aaron Kall, the University of Michigan’s director of debate.

Both old, but one looked older

The two men are just a few years apart in age, but Biden looked older in his presentation during an exhausting evening in front of what was expected to be a sizable television audience. A person familiar with the president’s health said he is suffering from a cold.

Biden also had his share of gaffes. As he answered a question about the national debt and started talking about health policy, he stammered and appeared to lose his train of thought at the end of his answer.

“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, with dealing with everything we have to do with,” Biden said. “Look, if we finally beat Medicare.”

Trump responded: “Well he’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

Trump and his allies in the days leading up to the debate had put forward unfounded accusations that Biden, 81, would arrive on stage with performance-enhancing chemicals in his system. It was an allegation Trump, 78, also made before he debated Biden in 2020.

Age is a top-of-mind issue for many voters, and the current president is the oldest person to serve in the office. Trump, if elected, would be poised to claim that record near the end of a second term.

But the challenger, unlike the incumbent, remained robust in his presentation throughout. He also sought to highlight Biden’s stammers, including after a meandering answer to a question about immigration.

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

Asked about the issue of age, Biden had a line at the ready: “This guy is three years younger and a lot less competent,” he said.

Trump responded to a question about his age by saying he would like Biden to take a cognitive test and release the results, triggering a chuckle from the president.

Sharpest attacks

If there was any uncertainty, the debate made clear neither man has any respect for the other, despite their joint status in an elite club of living past and present White House occupants. As they took the stage, neither moved to shake hands as has often been customary.

Biden challenged Trump over reports that he has called Americans who died in war “losers” and “suckers.” Referencing his son, the late Beau Biden , an army officer, Biden said: “My son was not a loser. He’s not a sucker. You’re the sucker. You’re the loser.”

Trump again asserted that he had never made the comments. Trump’s chief of staff at the time has confirmed that he used those derogatory words.

The former president also suggested that Biden isn’t fit for office. “He’s not equipped to be president,” Trump said. “His presidency, without question, the worst president, the worst presidency, in the history of our country. We shouldn’t be having a debate about it. There’s nothing to debate.”

Biden sought to highlight Trump’s past and potential future legal issues and suggested at one point that the thrice-married man has the “morals of an alley cat.”

Soft landing or surging prices

The economy is typically listed by the largest share of voters when they are asked by pollsters what their top issues are in this presidential race. Trump talked down the current environment, while Biden argued things are looking up, even though more work remains to be done.

Trump sought to hang the issue of inflation, which has slowed considerably but remains especially painful for lower and middle-income Americans, directly on Biden. “Inflation is killing our country,” he said.

The president pointed to low unemployment and a robust stock market. Economists are no longer talking much about the risk of a recession , something that seemed much more likely earlier in Biden’s term as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to cool inflation.

“Working-class people are still in trouble,” Biden acknowledged. “We’re working to bring down the price at the kitchen table, and that’s what we’re going to get done.”

The president also repeatedly sought to remind viewers of some of the bad things that played out during Trump’s tenure.

“We had an economy that was in free fall,” he said. “The pandemic was so badly handled. Many people were dying. All he said was, ‘It’s not that serious. Just inject a little bleach in your arm.’”

Trump at a Covid briefing in 2020 pondered whether treatments involving light or disinfectants should be studied.


Trump continued his effort to stake out a Republican abortion position after the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade galvanized voters in support of abortion access.

First he praised the justices he put on the court for the ruling, repeating a baseless claim that “every legal scholar” wanted Roe v. Wade overruled. But then he stressed that he supports exemptions to any abortion law for rape, incest and the life of the mother, arguing that while some don’t agree, “you’ve got to get elected.”

Trump also appeared to commit to allowing the abortion pill to remain available across the United States. “The Supreme Court just approved the abortion pill. I agree with their decision to have done that. I will not block it,” Trump said.

Biden, who has made abortion rights a central plank of his campaign and has targeted Trump for appointing three justices to the Supreme Court that overturned Roe, seized on Trump’s statement that the issue should be left to the states, saying it was “a little like saying, ‘We’re going to turn civil rights back to the states.’”

But Biden also stumbled badly in talking about the issue. When asked if he supported any legal limits on how late a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy, Biden said, “I supported Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters. First time is between a woman and a doctor. Second time is between the doctor and an extreme situation. And a third time is between the doctor—I mean, it’d be between the woman and the state.”

The ruling has unfurled a patchwork of laws across the country, and created uncertainty over related issues, including the future availability of abortion pills from mail-order pharmacies. The debate came shortly after the Supreme Court said it would allow emergency abortions in Idaho without deciding key issues in the case.

No rapport

During the commercial break, Biden and Trump remained at their lecterns and looked ahead as photographers took photos, according to a White House pool report. The candidates didn’t say anything or make eye contact with each other.

Toward the end of the debate the two began bickering about golf, as older men sometimes do. “He can’t hit a ball 50 yards,” Trump said of Biden. That prompted a retort from Biden: “I’m happy to play golf with you, if you carry your own bag.”

Write to John McCormick at and Catherine Lucey at