Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations

Television cameras can be especially cruel during presidential debates, but their harsh lights and high definition present a very specific challenge for one of the two men on stage this Tuesday – and it’s not Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus Rally crowd chants 'lock him up' as Trump calls Biden family 'a criminal enterprise' Undecided voters in Arizona wary of Trump, crave stability MORE.

Democrats continue to fret about the former vice president’s penchant for gaffes and stumbles. They’re not wrong — more on that later — but their hand-wringing ignores another danger set to be on display: Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE is a sitting president, and sitting presidents do not like debates.

Trump is a creature of television, so he may avoid this unique presidential pitfall. But recent debate history indicates he faces a risk most men in his position underestimate.


Debate cameras regularly reveal that sitting presidents really don’t want to be there. They’re testy and defensive; they look like exasperated, important men with far better things to do. And viewers do not react well to this.

In 2012 a broad consensus held that GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Memo: Trump's second-term chances fade Romney slams Trump for refusing to denounce QAnon on national television Overnight Defense: Pentagon IG to audit use of COVID-19 funds on contractors | Dems optimistic on blocking Trump's Germany withdrawal | Obama slams Trump on foreign policy MORE utterly clobbered Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJacobin Editor-at-Large: Valerie Jarrett's support for Citigroup executive's mayoral campaign 'microcosm' of Democrats' relationship with Wall Street Obama to stump for Biden in Philadelphia On India, the US must think bigger MORE in their first debate. The president stunned supporters by looking unprepared and openly disdainful of his Republican rival. Obama showed voters a different side of a man they’d come to know as disciplined, and they didn’t like it.

The cameras also were unkind to George W. Bush during his first debate against John KerryJohn Forbes KerrySeinfeld's Jason Alexander compares Trump dance video to iconic Elaine dance This time, for Democrats, Catholics matter President's job approval is surest sign Trump will lose reelection MORE in 2004. The merciless TV split-screen captured the president as he grimaced, frowned and rolled his eyes. Again, the audience rebelled; the web was soon filled with video compilations of Bush’s scornful expressions.

Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, fared no better in 1992 when, right in the middle of a debate with Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA closing argument: Why voters cannot trust Trump on healthcare On India, the US must think bigger Biden, Kelly maintain leads in Arizona MORE and Ross Perot, he glanced at his watch. It was a simple televised image but it made him look impatient and aloof, solidifying a Clinton campaign storyline: Bush was out of touch with real-life concerns in the midst of a recession.

None of this may bode well for Trump. The president has already made it clear he doesn’t need to prepare for the debate, leaving allies worried that his overconfidence — like that of presidents before him — could backfire.


Biden’s challenge is more familiar: the expectations game. And here the candidate’s history of weak debate performances might actually help him. Voters who followed the Democratic primary debates have pretty much seen the former vice president at his worst. That, along with Trump’s charges that Biden “doesn’t know he’s alive,” has set the performance bar fairly low. Polls show people already think the president will win on debate night.

But, no matter the expectations, debate gaffes do make a difference — and real headlines — when they tap into voters’ preconceived concerns about a candidate. President Gerald Ford was seen by some as not smart enough for the job. It didn’t help his cause when, during his 1976 debate against challenger Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPoll: Graham leads Harrison by 6 points in SC Senate race Biden leads Trump by double digits: poll Donald Trump is a (tax) loser, just like a lot of other people MORE, Ford seemed to insist that Poland was not really under the thumb of the Soviet Union.

In 2000, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreFox News president warns of calling winner too soon on election night: 2000 still 'lingers over everyone' Older voters helped put Trump in office; they will help take him out Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score? MORE was considered stiff and unrelatable, especially compared to rival George W. Bush, who was viewed as the kind of guy “you could have a beer with.” The VP clinched the caricature when, nearly every time Bush spoke, Gore sighed in an exaggerated way that was, well, stiff and unrelatable.

The most significant debate blunder came in 1988, when Michael Dukakis went up against Republican nominee Bush Senior, then Ronald Reagan’s vice president. The Massachusetts governor was characterized by the GOP as an emotionless technocrat who didn’t understand voters. Sure enough, when Dukakis was asked if he’d change his opposition on the death penalty were his wife raped and murdered, he responded with a cold technocratic answer that made no mention of his wife, their love, or the outrageous question he’d just been asked.

The problem for Trump: To achieve that magnitude of gaffe, Biden may have to limbo well below what viewers — and the president himself — already have come to expect from him. Wandering the stage aimlessly while playing air guitar might do it.

Something serious could happen, of course. And the pressure on Biden will be uniquely severe, the consequences potentially enormous. But the history of televised debates shows all this pressure works both ways: The incumbent president will confront that history and his own brand of peril Tuesday night, with headlines to follow in the morning.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.