In what felt like a war of words between two grumpy old men, US President and Democrat candidate (for now) Joe Biden, 81 and his predecessor, Republican candidate Donald Trump, 78, had their first presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday night.

This was the first debate of the 2024 general elections, and it was rough. Well, it as rough as an argument between two geriatricians can get: full of personal attacks and insults. 

The debate, moderated by CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, is the first since the 1960s to feature candidates whose combined age is over 100. There was no audience, and candidates were not allowed to bring pre-written notes or have any contact with campaign staff.

Trump, who lost the election to Biden in 2020, is back in the running despite being convicted for attempting to influence the 2016 election by paying an adult film star, Stormy Daniels, hush money after the actress claimed that they had slept together. He also faces a number of charges in different states, including in Georgia, where the debate was held, for allegedly trying to overturn election results after he lost in that state in the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, Biden’s camp had wished to dispel worries that he was too old to run and lead should he win. Well, that failed—dismally. The 81-year-old Biden was barely audible and stumbled over his words in the debate’s first half. TikTok influencer Zethu Gqola likened Biden’s performance to elder abuse, saying Biden looked senile.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Vice President Kamala Harris defended Biden’s performance in the debate. “He got into a groove where it counted,” she said, focusing on his achievements in office and saying that the election result would be based on “substance rather than debate styles”. 

Trump stuck to his usual talking points: Vote rigging, a vendetta against him and how America is now worse off under Biden than under him. Right after his loss in 2020, Trump started alleging that the Democrats had stolen the election. This led to Trump supporters attacking the Capitol Building in Washington DC on 6 January 2021, leaving nine people dead and many others injured. Trump is now promising to pardon those involved and charged, calling them “January 6 hostages”.

Political commentator and New York Times opinion columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who is friends with Biden, says it was time for the president to bow out of the race. “To give America the greatest shot possible of deterring the Trump threat in November, the president has to come forward and declare that he will not be running for re-election and is releasing all of his delegates for the Democratic National Convention,” Friedman wrote

Conservative publication The Hill wrote that despite Trump’s lacklustre performance, he and his allies must be thrilled at Biden’s folly. “He (Trump) leaves Atlanta more likely to win back the White House than when he walked onto the stage,” wrote journalist Niall Stanage.
The debate proved two things: That Biden’s best years are behind him and that Trump hasn’t changed. As University of Illinois Political Science professor Nicholas Grossman wrote in The Bulwark: “Neither Trump nor Biden did the standard debate moves of answering the question they wish they got instead of the one asked—they barely answered anything coherently.”