3 answers to the most challenging debate questions for Joe Biden

Joe Biden will be peppered with tough questions at Thursday’s first debate against Donald Trump

Published June 26, 2024 5:21AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting about countering the flow of fentanyl into the United States, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House November 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting about countering the flow of fentanyl into the United States, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House November 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Count on CNN moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper to try to put both candidates on the defensive with their questions during Thursday’s debate, the first of the general election. Here’s how President Biden can parry, turning tough questions to his advantage.

1. "Mr. President, you know the questions about your age. Can you reassure Americans that you have not slowed down so much that it keeps you from fully performing your duties for four more years?" 

“I wouldn’t be running for re-election if I wasn’t ready and able to serve,” the president should forcefully retort. “As my doctor wrote in February after doing a thorough examination, I am ‘“a healthy, active, robust 81-year-old male, who remains fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency.’

“This ‘healthy, active, robust’ president is used to being doubted and counted out. Look at my record, folks.”

“People scoffed in 2020 when I campaigned on enacting bipartisan legislation to get America moving again. As President, I signed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. Today, we’re building roads, bridges, and internet connections in small towns, creating 2.4 million jobs. And there is more to come.

“Then I got the Reduce Inflation Act passed. It’s delivering $200 million in green energy projects for our young people’s future, creating another 195,000 jobs, most of them in red states. Unlike my opponent, I am president of all the people, whether they vote for me or not. 

“Check out all these Republicans taking credit at home for bills they voted against in Congress. I say, ‘Welcome, my friends, to an America that wants to move forward, not backward.’

“And no one thought my administration could get the budget through the MAGA Freedom Caucus in the House. We did. Same for aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. We fight for freedom against our enemies in the world. And we do it without putting America’s soldiers in harm’s way.

“I’m still Joe from Scranton, and I can give more than I get. You saw me take on those rude MAGA Republicans at my State of the Union. I’m for civility, but I fight when it’s not returned. 

“Two weeks ago, when my 78-year-old opponent met with the Business Roundtable, the CEOs said afterwards he was [quote] “meandering, could not keep a straight thought and was all over the map.” I’m quoting CNBC. 

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“But I’m not going to hold it against him that he rants and raves. He lacks the heart, soul, and experience in government to do the people’s work. 

2. “Mr. President, many people have lost confidence in your ability to manage the economy because of inflation. What’s your answer to them?”

“First, I get it. Inflation hurts ordinary Americans. 

“I know what it costs to go to the grocery store or fill up at the gas station. I wasn’t born into wealth. I didn’t have a father give me $400 million like my opponent did. I know what it is like to struggle, to sit at the kitchen table trying to figure out how to make your dollars cover everything. I’ve lived that life.”

“I know what life is like for working people. I know that middle-class life is too expensive right now. That's why I’ve passed laws to lower costs.

“Let’s look at the record. 

“Inflation was 5.2% when I came into office. Now it’s just over 3%. That’s still too high, but stay tuned – the nonpartisan economists at Moody’s Analytics just predicted that it will drop ‘to the Fed’s 2 percent target by summer 2025’ with me as president.

“They also projected that if my opponent is elected, inflation goes up. And they explained why: ‘Trump policies — including higher tariffs, tax cuts that stimulate the economy and an exodus of foreign immigrants that could tighten the labor market and increase labor costs.’ Trump would reverse the great progress we’ve made in cutting the rate of inflation." 

“And even though inflation is tough across the globe, the Wall Street Journal had a recent headline about our economy, saying it’s the – [I’m quoting now] –  ‘“Envy of the World.’” 

“Under my Administration, real wage growth is beating inflation – our economy has American wage-earners gaining more than what inflation takes away.” “Unemployment is at historic lows, almost 3% below what it was when I took over.” 

You want more jobs while inflation continues to drop? That’s what you’ll get if you vote for me.”

3. “President Biden, on immigration, polls report that American voters trust President Trump more than they trust you. Why?”

“I know that illegal immigration is a real problem. And I have worked hard to stem the tide of illegal immigration.”

“That’s why on my first day in office, I sent Congress comprehensive legislation to completely overhaul the broken immigration system I inherited: cracking down on illegal immigration; strengthening legal immigration; and protecting Dreamers, the children of parents who are undocumented parents and here through no fault of their own, as well as immigrants with temporary protected status and farmworkers, who are all part of the fabric of our nation.

“But congressional Republicans refused to consider my comprehensive plan. 

“From that day until today, I have worked hard to solve the immigration problem. In fact, in January, we had the solution until my opponent blew it up.

“I hope the media, including your network, Jake and Dana, will tell this truth because it’s the whole truth: We had a bipartisan border security bill that my administration negotiated with Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and Leader Mitch McConnell. 

“Donald Trump didn’t want the problem solved; he wanted it to continue so he could yell about it and hope it helps get him elected. That’s who he is – in it for himself, not you, the American people. 

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“Let me tell you about the bill he stopped. It would have given a president the express authority to shut the border when traffic got too high. The bill would have spent $20 billion for:

  • new Border Patrol officials;
  • Screening out phony asylum requests 
  • Expand detention facilities to hold those who cross the border illegally; and,
  • increase screenings for fentanyl. 

“In the negotiation, I gave and I got. That’s compromise. It’s how the government works for the people in this country. I want to solve the immigration problem. 

That’s not what my opponent wants. He wants power, and he’ll do or say anything to get it even if he needs to hurt the country to get it.

“But, Dana, I am still doing everything a president can without that bill. We’ve just issued orders saying no one entering the country illegally may apply for political asylum. 

“We’ve intercepted more fentanyl in the last two years than in the previous five combined.

“We’ve imposed sanctions on the Daniel Ortega regime in Nicaragua for selling visas, and we’ve launched new initiatives to dismantle human smuggling rings. 

“Meanwhile, we’re helping the Dreamers, the children of undocumented parents who are here through no fault of their own.

“We have a new initiative that will, for the first time, swiftly give them work visas, through their employers. These are people who are contributing to America. In May, we extended access to health care coverage to 100,000 of them. That saves our communities the costs of emergency room visits.” 

“These Dreamers join millions of people my Administration has helped get Obamacare. My opponent wanted to end it because he’s all about punishing his rivals and anyone who opposes him.”

“We also have a new initiative that would allow undocumented spouses of American citizens who’ve been married 10 years to apply for permanent residency without leaving the country. That’s just plain old human decency.”

"One last point. My opponent tries to frighten you with his usual scare tactics, not facts. But facts are stubborn things. Researchers who study them tell us that immigrants are associated with lower crime rates not higher. And all violent crime in the United States is down to a near-50 year low."

“I need your vote. We can secure our borders by working across the aisle once Americans defeat Donald Trump. And we will do it with compassion for the people, especially young people, who deserve it. We’re America, second to none. And we own the finish line.”

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

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Cnn Commentary Dana Bash Debate Donald Trump Elections 2024 Jake Tapper Joe Biden