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How Biden is getting ready for his high-stakes debate with Trump

Former President Donald Trump and now-President Biden, as seen on television during the Oct. 22, 2022 presidential debate. Their first debate this year airs on Thursday on CNN.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
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Getty Images North America
Former President Donald Trump and now-President Biden, as seen on television during the Oct. 22, 2022 presidential debate. Their first debate this year airs on Thursday on CNN.

Updated June 23, 2024 at 07:57 AM ET

President Biden and former President Donald Trump are set to meet on the debate stage on Thursday in Atlanta, a high-stakes moment for the presidential race, given that it is the first time and one of the only times the two candidates will appear side by side during the race.

The 2024 election is a rematch between the two oldest presidential candidates in American history. But that reality has been slow to sink in for many voters.The Biden campaign is hoping that the debate gives them the opportunity to reach people who haven’t made up their mind yet about how or if they will vote in November.

“I think the president’s primary goal with this debate is for Americans to see that the choice in this election is between him and Donald Trump,” said Kate Berner, former deputy communications director in the Biden White House.

“He really needs people to zero in on the fact that one of the two of them will be president in 2025.”

President Biden steps off Air Force One as he arrives in Hagerstown, Maryland, on June 20, on his way to Camp David where is preparing for the presidential debate.
Samuel Corum / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
President Biden steps off Air Force One as he arrives in Hagerstown, Maryland, on June 20, on his way to Camp David where is preparing for the presidential debate.

Biden has said that his aim with the debate is to draw a contrast with Trump. “Say what I think. Let him say what he thinks,” Biden told ABC News anchor David Muir in a recent interview. “Remind people what he says, and what I believe and what he believes.”

Biden is at Camp David getting ready

On Thursday, the president arrived at the presidential retreat in the woods of Maryland, known as Camp David, to prepare for the debate. It’s a secluded site other recent presidents have also used to get ready during their reelection campaigns.

“Biden’s a really big homework guy,” said Jim Messina, who ran former President Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012.

But one big challenge for Biden is that he has had less time to do the homework than he did four years ago.

This month alone, he has made two diplomatic trips to Europe, for the G7 summit and for the anniversary of D-Day. And his family has been focused on the trial and conviction of his son Hunter Biden on gun charges.

“They’re gonna go to Camp David, do debate camp there, getting him away from the White House where a million things could come up — time where they just go at it,” said Messina.

These are some of Biden's lines of attack

A Biden campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss debate plans, said the president will be focused on drawing distinctions with Trump in three main areas of focus for his campaign:

Former President Donald Trump as seen at a rally in Schnecksville, Pa., on April 13.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images / Getty Images North America
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Getty Images North America
Former President Donald Trump as seen at a rally in Schnecksville, Pa., on April 13.

  • Abortion — the campaign has sought to pin the blame for the loss of abortion rights on Trump, who named conservative justices to the Supreme Court, which overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago.
  • Democracy — Biden has argued Trump is a threat to democracy, focusing on the Jan. 6 riot of Trump supporters at the Capitol, where lawmakers were formalizing the 2020 election results.
  • Economy — Biden wants to raise taxes on billionaires, and says his opponent would give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations.


Biden is preparing for the debate in part by catching up on what Trump has been saying in his rallies and interviews — events that Biden has been too busy to watch in real time, a second person involved in debate planning told NPR, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

Biden’s former chief of staff Ron Klain is leading debate prep. Other advisers and aides, including his chief of staff Jeff Zients, are also working with him.

In 2020, Biden sparred with a mock opponent, with his personal lawyer Bob Bauer acting as Trump. The campaign didn’t confirm if that would happen this year.

The two candidates have experience with each other’s debate style

The first time Biden and Trump squared off to debate, in September of 2020, it was chaotic with lots of crosstalk. Biden, at one point, told a combative Trump: “Will you shut up, man?”

CNN, the host of Thursday’s debate, has said it will mute the candidates’ microphones this time to limit interruptions.

But Trump took a more restrained tack in the second debate in 2020 — and that makes preparation for Biden a bit unpredictable, said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University who’s written a history of presidential debates. “You don’t know which one you’ll get,” Schroeder said.

The campaign views Trump as running a more “disciplined campaign” this time around, and expects Thursday’s debate to be more like the second Biden-Trump debate from 2020, rather than the chaotic first debate, a person involved in debate planning told NPR.

This time, Biden is the incumbent

The dynamics between the candidates have changed in other ways since the last time they debated. This time, it’s Biden — not Trump — who’s the sitting president.

“You don’t want to spend all of your time defending your own record,” said Messina. “You know, that’s really what happened to President Obama in his first debate. He spent more time, in retrospect, than he wanted defending Obamacare.”

Schroeder said incumbent presidents typically have a rough first debate in part because their opponents have been battle-tested through the primaries. But this is not a typical election, because Trump refused to debate his primary opponents.

A spokesperson for the Trump campaign said Trump has been preparing through interviews and lengthy rallies, “demonstrating elite stamina,” and said the former president “does not need to be programmed by staff.”

The former president has set a low bar for Biden, suggesting he’s not up to the rigors of the job. But Schroeder says there’s some risk in that strategy. “Biden could be the benefit of some low expectations,” he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 23, 2024 at 11:38 AM EDT
An earlier photo caption incorrectly stated that Joe Biden and Donald Trump debated in October 2022. They debated on Oct. 22, 2020.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.