Debate reveals post-debate dimensions

Published : 09 Jul 2024 08:58 PM

Coming into this debate in Atlanta, USA, polling indicated that voters gave Trump better marks on the economy and immigration - two of the top issues for American voters at the moment. Meanwhile, President Biden was favored on abortion, healthcare and the environment.

During the debate and afterwards President Biden has tried to convince voters that he shares their concerns about a surge in immigration but has been stymied by Republicans in trying to deal with it successfully. The other question now floating around after the debate, and the speeches given since then by Trump is whether he will find a way to convince voters that another term in office will not lead to greater restrictions on abortion – particularly given the fact that he appointed three Supreme Court Justices who voted to overturn the federal right to the procedure.

Mr Biden has been trying for more than a year to convince the American public that the economy is better than they think it is. He will now have a chance to make that case again to an audience of tens of millions, but he’ll have to do so in the face of what’s sure to be withering attacks from his opponent, who is expected to focus on the soaring prices and high inflation that Americans have had to live with in recent years.

Recently, the Biden campaign launched a new series of advertisements directly attacking Trump for his recent criminal felony conviction in a New York court. Polls have indicated that the guilty verdict has cost Donald Trump support among the independent voters who could prove decisive in this election. Meanwhile, President Biden has also having to deal with a Court case of his own. His son Hunter’s conviction on felony firearm charges.

This is the earliest presidential debate in modern US history - held before either candidate has become the formal nominee of their party. That means the showdown could set the mood and the measure of the campaign to come, solidifying some loosely held views about the candidates and better defining the issues and stakes around November's vote. Analysts have in this regard observed that accepting a truly catastrophic mistake by one of the candidates, the early timing could mean that when Election Day arrives, this June event will become a distant memory for the majority of Americans who only infrequently follow politics.

Both candidates will also have a chance to reset and rebuild from any damage that might also result during their tightly scripted national conventions, which are taking place later in the summer. There is also another debate scheduled in September that could further erase this first debate from voter memories.

This is a reality that a senior Biden campaign aide has underlined while speaking to the BBC's media partner CBS. “The June debate is not a moment that we expect to define the trajectory of the election or move poll numbers in the near-term," the advisor said, adding that voters will require “consistent time and effort". In other words, this debate is the start of a marathon, not the end of the race.

BBC analyst Anthony Zurcher has underlined that Biden and Trump have faced off again for the Presidency and this debate marked the first time in this election campaign where millions of Americans paid attention to the whole process. It may also be recalled that this Atlanta debate also was the first time that Joe Biden and Donald Trump appeared together since their debates four years ago. The initial encounter in 2020 was an acrimonious affair, punctuated by repeated interruptions and Mr Biden’s frustrated “Will you shut up, man?” demand. At the start of the second debate that year, discussion was delayed by Trump’s Covid diagnosis. The two men did not even shake hands.

Zurcher has also interestingly remarked that President Biden may not be the only one with an opportunity to defy expectations. However, Democrats have been warning for more than a year that Trump is obsessed with revenge and retribution, and that he is an “aspiring autocrat who presents an existential threat to American democracy”. Biden campaign officials have also underlined that Trump “snapped” after his 2020 election defeat and is a different man than Americans elected in 2016.’

Nevertheless, one needs to note how some countries all over the world have responded to the connotations arising from the debate. While some of the reviews appeared to be most sarcastic of President Biden’s performance, his Republican challenger also did not escape criticism.

The Russian media as expected portrayed Mr Biden's performance in the debate as lackluster. It also highlighted Trump's attacks on Mr Biden's handling of the Ukraine war.

Always keen to surprise, The Russian President Vladimir Putin has however gone on record as saying he would actually prefer Joe Biden to keep his job because of his “predictability”. Geo-strategists have observed that such a public endorsement, though, “should be taken with an extremely large pinch of Russian salt. Moscow is likely to view the election of a NATO-sceptic, Ukraine-sceptic US President as three lemons for Russia on the geo-political fruit machine”. The Kremlin remembers that there is no guaranteed pay-out for Moscow. The Kremlin was left disappointed by the first Trump Presidency. In 2016 the Russian authorities had expected an improvement in Russia-US relations – but that never materialized for them. Many in Russia today feel that a second Trump Presidency might leave Moscow feeling similarly underwhelmed.

One aspect is however clear. Whoever wins the race for the White House this time, the Russian authorities will be watching closely for signs of post-election political instability and polarization in America and looking for ways to benefit. The Chinese media appears to have been moved by the theatrics of the debate, and many outlets highlighted that Mr Biden and Trump did not shake hands at the beginning of the debate but went on to launch “fierce personal attacks against each other”. The state-owned Global Times described the debate being similar to “a reality show”.

Analyst Laura Bicker referring to US interest over China has pointed out that both candidates are vying to be tough on Beijing and have similar economic policies to combat China’s rise including raising tariffs on cheap Chinese goods. However, according to Laura Bicker, they seem to have very different approaches to dealing with China’s regional influence. Biden has shored up relationships there, in the hope that a united front sends a clear message to an increasingly assertive Beijing. But when President, Trump focused less on being a statesman and more on what he saw was the “best deal”. He threatened to remove US troops from South Korea unless Seoul paid Washington more money. The biggest difference between the two is in Taiwan. On multiple occasions, Biden has reiterated a pledge to come to the self-governing island’s defence if President Xi makes good on his promise to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary. On the other hand, Trump has accused Taiwan of undermining American businesses and he has expressed opposition to a US bill which sent aid there. That led some to question whether he would be willing to come to Taipei’s aid if needed. This has led Bicker to observe that when the US votes, China is unlikely to have a favorite in the fight. In Beijing’s view, an unpredictable Trump could weaken and divide US allies in the region - but he could also create another trade war. They are also not “too keen on another four years of Biden either. They believe his alliance building has the potential to create a new Cold War.”

In Israel, the media agreed that Mr Biden looked “weak”, and theorized how a Trump presidential win would affect the ongoing Gaza war. They pointed out Trump’s comment that if he was President, the 7 October Hamas-led attack on Israel would not have happened. The media also highlighted Trump’s pro-Israel credentials and drew attention to his comment that Biden “has become like a Palestinian. But they don’t like him. Because he’s a very bad Palestinian. He’s a very weak one.”

Latin America's media were riveted by what they called the "tense" presidential debate, highlighting their rancorous exchanges over immigration, the economy, abortion and global politics. Many media analysts in the region saw Trump succeeding in stoking doubts about Mr Biden's age by pummeling him energetically on issues sensitive to US voters, such as inflation and immigration.

The Turkish media described the debate as a “poor” performance by President Biden which may lead to “panic” among the Democrats. Coverage also raised eyebrows about the general quality of the debate. It needs to be pointed out that many analysts in Turkey have long been cool on Mr Biden’s Presidency and have accused him of “hypocrisy” on the Israel-Gaza war and have also voiced doubt about his emphasis on defending the “liberal international order”.

Analyst Jessica Murphy has observed that America's northern neighbor Canada has indirectly hinted that they have some worries about a second Donald Trump Presidency. Trump has never been as popular in Canada and one poll earlier this year has suggested a majority in Canada is worried that American democracy would not survive another four years of Trump.

Such a feeling exists despite the fact that during Trump’s Presidency Canada managed to successfully renegotiate the North American trade deal. Now with November’s US election fast approaching, Canada’s political and business class is already ramping up for more trade upheaval. This anxiety stems from the fact that in economic terms - about US Dollar 2.6 billion in trade crossed the border each day last year. Consequently, a planned formal review of the trade deal, along with Trump campaign musings about a worldwide tariff on imported goods have both become a cause for concern. Such anxiety has led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to already launch a “Team Canada” project- sending politicians, envoys and business leaders fanning out across the US to pitch the value of Canada, both privately and publicly.

(Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <[email protected]>)