Obama, Clinton excuse Biden's debate performance to fend off Democratic meltdown: 'Bad debate nights happen'

Former US President Barack Obama (L) and former US President Bill Clinton (R) cheer for US President Joe Biden during a campaign fundraising event at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on March 28, 2024. 

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Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on Friday tried to do some damage control following President Joe Biden’s debate fumble against his November election opponent, former President Donald Trump.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know. But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself,” Obama said in a post on X, linking to Biden’s campaign website. “Last night didn’t change that, and it’s why so much is at stake in November.”

Several hours later, Clinton mimicked the defensive play.

“I’ll leave the debate rating to the pundits, but here’s what I know: facts and history matter,” Clinton said in his own post on X, following with a brief list of Biden’s accomplishments.

Throughout the 90-minute showdown on Thursday, Biden regularly stumbled, taking mid-sentence pauses to gather his words and tripping over his sentences. The blunders happened even on topics like abortion and the economy, which he tends to be cogent on during campaign rallies and White House events.

The messaging from Obama and Clinton marks a shift in strategy for Democrats as they try to course-correct after Thursday’s flop.

Much of Democrats’ spin immediately following the debate attempted to play down Biden’s conspicuous blunders, instead attacking Trump’s performance and giving Biden a generous evaluation.

“As the night went on, I think [Biden] really kind of rose to the occasion,” Biden co-campaign chair Mitch Landrieu told NBC News Thursday night after the debate. “I’m proud of the fact that he stood up to Donald Trump.”

The comments from Obama and Clinton represent a new tact: Acknowledge the debate disaster and then tell the public not to focus on it.

Biden himself followed that framing on Friday during a rally in North Carolina: “Folks, I don’t walk as easily as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth.”

But debates do matter to voters. After the September 2020 debate, a slew of polls found that voters thought Biden did a better job, which helped him maintain his lead against Trump.

This year’s presidential race has been a near dead-heat so far and will likely be won by tight margins come November, leaving little room for error.

In the days since the debate, Democrats have been concerned about how it might weigh on voter perceptions, which are already rife with worries about Biden’s age and fitness to lead the country for another four years.

Some Democratic strategists, donors and pundits have already suggested that Biden should drop out of the race and reopen the Democratic field to potentially stronger candidates.

The Biden campaign has so far rejected that proposal. Biden and Trump are scheduled to face off at a second and final debate on Sept. 10.

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