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“Step Aside Joe”: After First Pres. Debate, Democrats Reeling from Biden Missteps & Trump Lies

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The first 2024 presidential debate between President Biden and former President Trump was held on Thursday night. It marked the first time a sitting president debated a former one. It also marked the two oldest candidates ever to run for president, with a combined age of 159. The 90-minute discussion hosted by CNN was more of an incoherent debacle than any substantive debate. Biden was halting and disjointed. He was hard to hear, muffled his lines and often appeared to lose his train of thought. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly lied — his false claims not challenged by CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. “Joe Biden really failed to rise to this moment,” says Chris Lehmann, D.C. bureau chief for The Nation. “I expected nothing great, but it was so much worse.”

We also speak with Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and the co-founder of, which sponsors the “Step Aside Joe!” campaign. He says Biden’s performance in the debate showed “he is clearly impaired” and unable to defeat Trump, which is “a gift to the extreme right wing.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The first 2024 presidential debate between President Biden and former President Trump was held Thursday night in Atlanta. It marked the first time a sitting president debated a former one. It also marked the two oldest candidates ever to run for president, with a combined age of 159.

And it was more of an incoherent debacle than any substantive debate. President Biden was halting and disjointed, hard to hear, often muffled his lines and appeared to lose his train of thought. Meanwhile, Trump repeatedly lied, his false claims not challenged by the CNN moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

The debate covered a wide range of issues, from the economy and tax policy to immigration, reproductive rights, foreign policy and more.

Today we’ll play excerpts and get response from a roundtable of guests. Let’s begin at the beginning. CNN moderator Jake Tapper opened the debate by citing high inflation and asking President Biden about the economy.

JAKE TAPPER: What do you say to voters who feel they are worse off under your presidency than they were under President Trump?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, you’ve got to take a look at what I was left when I became president, what Mr. Trump left me. We had an economy that was in freefall. The pandemic was so badly handled, many people were dying. All he said was, “It’s not that serious. Just inject a little bleach into your arm. You’ll be all right.” The economy collapsed. There were no jobs. Unemployment rate rose to 15%. It was terrible.

And so, what we had to do is try to put things back together again. And that’s exactly what we began to do. We created 15,000 new jobs. We brought out — in a position where we have 800,000 new manufacturing jobs.

But there’s more to be done. There’s more to be done. Working-class people are still in trouble.

I come from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I come of a household where the kitchen table — if the things weren’t able to be met during the month, it was a problem — price of eggs, the price of gas, the price of housing, the price of a whole range of things.

That’s why I’m working so hard to make sure I deal with those problems, and we’re going to make sure that we reduce the price of housing. We’re going to make sure we build 2 million new units. We’re going to make sure we cap rents, so corporate greed can’t take over.

The combination of what I was left with and corporate greed is the reason why we’re in this problem right now.

In addition to that, we’re in a situation where if you had to take a look at all that was done in his administration, he didn’t do much at all. By the time he left, there were — things were in chaos. Literally chaos.

And so we put things back together. We created, as I said, those jobs. We made sure we had a situation where we now — we brought down the price of prescription drugs, which is a major issue for many people, to $15 for — for an insulin shot, as opposed to $400. No senior has to pay more than $200 for any drug, all the drugs they can include, beginning next year. And the situation is making — and we’re going to make that available to everybody, to all Americans. So, we’re working to bring down the price of — around the kitchen table. And that’s what we’re going to get done.

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you. President Trump?

DONALD TRUMP: We had the greatest economy in the history of our country. We have never done so well. Every — everybody was amazed by it. Other countries were copying us.

We got hit with COVID. And when we did, we spent the money necessary so we wouldn’t end up in a Great Depression, the likes of which we had in 1929, by the time we finished. So we did a great job.

We got a lot of credit for the economy, a lot of credit for the military and no wars and so many other things. Everything was rocking good. But the thing we never got the credit for — and we should have — is getting us out of that COVID mess. He created mandates. That was a disaster for our country.

But other than that, we had — we had given them back a — a country where the stock market actually was higher than pre-COVID. And nobody thought that was even possible.

The only jobs he created are for illegal immigrants and bounceback jobs, the bounceback from the COVID. He has not done a good job. He’s done a poor job. And inflation’s killing our country. It is absolutely killing us.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the opening remarks by former President Trump and President Biden in their presidential debate last night.

For more, we’re joined by Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of, which sponsors the “Step Aside Joe!” campaign; his most recent book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine; joining us from the San Francisco area. And joining us from Washington, D.C., is Chris Lehmann, D.C. bureau chief for The Nation.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Chris, let’s begin with you. You’ve just finished your piece for The Nation summarizing the debate. Your overall response?

CHRIS LEHMANN: Well, I think, you know, my overall response is, for once, pretty much in line with most Americans. Joe Biden really failed to rise to this moment. And it’s important to remember this is a moment the Biden campaign aggressively helped shape. They wanted this debate early in the cycle so they could do something to jolt Biden’s laggard approval numbers. Actually, you know, the failure of CNN to fact-check Trump’s many lies was part of the deal that the Biden campaign negotiated. They didn’t want that kind of real-time scrutiny, either. So, it’s a classic instance of be careful what you wish for.

Biden, despite a week of solid preparation, was flustered. He was unable to complete thoughts. He delivered the, you know, already notorious line, “We finally beat Medicare,” which furnished Trump instant ammunition to pounce and to lie and demagogue on the immigration issue, as, in his view, it exerts a downward pull on social benefits like Medicare. So, it was — I expected nothing great, but it was so much worse than what I was preparing myself for.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Norman Solomon, as you viewed this, and then the commentary afterwards on the corporate networks — I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the uniformity of opinion, where you had the Democrats and those sympathetic to them — not talking about Fox, of course; MSNBC and CNN — saying that their phones were blowing up with Democratic donors, with down-balloters — people running down the ballot from the presidential ballot, of course — deeply concerned about Biden’s health and what happened during this debate. You had Fox continually quoting MSNBC and CNN, saying, sort of, “Don’t believe us. Listen to the commentators on these liberal networks going after Biden right now, saying he should step aside.” This is something you have been talking about, though you certainly haven’t been a supporter of President Trump. Can you respond to what happened last night?

NORMAN SOLOMON: What happened last night was a tremendous disaster for efforts to defeat Donald Trump. What happened was a complete catastrophe that befell, but was self-inflicted by, Biden. We should be super clear about this. Joe Biden showed, without any doubt, last night that he is clearly impaired. He is in no way up to the job of defeating Donald Trump. And in the history of presidential debates, no performance has ever come near being as disastrous as what Biden turned in. It was a gift to the extreme right wing. It was an enormous present, that had a bow on it and then was unwrapped and handed over to the neofascist Republican Party.

And what I think we have to look at now is the response from the Democratic Party establishment. We had, for instance, in the spin room last night after this disastrous debate, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, saying that Democrats are united fully behind President Biden. That’s preposterous. And it would be a suicide politically for the Democrat Party to proceed that way.

I think what we need to look at now is the imperative of a grassroots uprising from liberals, from progressives, from so-called moderates, who don’t want a return to four horrific years of Donald Trump, that show all signs of being far worse than the previous four years with Trump. What is necessary is something called democracy — lower case “d” — democratic activity, where people all around this country, starting today, calling upon anybody they have elected with a “D” after their name, a senator, a representative, demanding that they get real about where we are right now.

Where we are right now is that unless, very quickly, we’ve got Joe Biden no longer at the top of this ticket or on the ticket of the Democratic Party, it is a gold-plated invitation to a victory not only for Trump, but an entire extreme right-wing agenda.

So, I think we have to now organize swiftly. The crisis of the moment is extreme. And that calls upon us to end this pattern of Democrats in Congress serving as enablers for a president who absolutely is impaired and unable to get the job done to stop a fascist wave in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now to Biden and Trump, right now a clip of President Biden.

JAKE TAPPER: I want to give you an opportunity to respond to this question about the national debt.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He had the largest national debt of any president in a four-your period, number one. Number two, he — that $2 trillion tax cut benefited the very wealthy.

What I’m going to do is fix the tax system. For example, we have a thousand trillionaires in America — I mean, billionaires in America. And what’s happening? They’re in a situation where they, in fact, pay 8.2% in taxes. If they just paid 24% or 25%, either one of those numbers, they’d raise $500 million — billion dollars, I should say, in a 10-year period.

We’d be able to right wipe out his debt. We’d be able to help make sure that all those things we need to do — child care, elder care, making sure that we continue to strengthen our healthcare system, making sure that we’re able to make every single solitary person eligible for what I’ve been able to do with the — with — with the COVID — excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with — look, if — we finally beat Medicare.

AMY GOODMAN: “We finally beat Medicare,” Norm Solomon. So, what you had last night in the commentary after the debate is people reading the rules for what it would mean for delegates to be freed up at the Democratic convention. And again, this was not on Fox. This seemed to be the uniform, very little dissent on — and the concern of Democratic senators and congressmembers, who you never hear stepping out of line, now. Explain what that would look like. What would this mean? What are the rules?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, to solve this problem, we would need an immediate and drastic change for implanting backbones into the Democrats in the House and the Senate. It would be an extraordinary effort that would be necessary, most importantly, to get Biden to finally agree that he’s not up to the job and to say that he’s voluntarily going to be a one-term president. That is the clearest glide path to getting Biden out of the way so we have a chance to get an actual strong candidate in there to save the country and the world from Trump.

If Biden isn’t willing to do that — and I’ve got to say, he’s been surrounded by sycophants and flunkies, not only in the White House and the Democratic National Committee, but, in effect, in Congress — if Biden is not willing to do that, then we need to have an enormous uprising. And as usual, it would start with and depend on organizing at the grassroots and insisting that power comes from the base of the Democratic Party, comes from people rather than elites deciding to do X, Y, Z.

What that would look like is, ultimately, the Democratic National Committee would have to take this process in hand. And I’ve got to say, Amy, you know, this is tremendously frustrating for many people, including me, because almost two years ago at RootsAction, we launched a “Don’t Run Joe” campaign after he then went ahead and filed formally as a candidate. We just changed the name to “Step Aside Joe!” And more than a year ago, when we were putting ads in The Hill newspaper, full-page ads, telling members of Congress it’s time to step up, they’ve been entirely silent. So, this would be a real change. It would be a virtual 180 that would be required.

Unless Biden steps aside — and time is short — unless Biden is willing to step down and say he’s a one-term president on purpose, then we have to light a huge fire under these elected Democrats and the DNC, who are mostly, frankly, Democratic Party hacks, and say, “This is completely unacceptable. Get this guy out of there. We’ve got to stop Trump.”

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Solomon is with the Institute for Public Accuracy, co-founder of, which sponsors the “Step Aside Joe!” campaign. Chris Lehmann is the D.C. bureau chief for The Nation, just out with a piece on last night’s first presidential debate. We’re going to continue this discussion with looking at Biden and Trump sparring over the economic record and inflation, addressing immigration and reproductive rights, as well as foreign policy. Stay with us.

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