‘Will you shut up, man?’: memorable moments from Biden’s past debates

According to Donald Trump, Joe Biden is either a very accomplished or utterly incompetent debater.

When details of the presidential debate, which takes place in Atlanta on Thursday, were announced last month, Trump mocked Biden as “the WORST debater I have ever faced”, adding: “He can’t put two sentences together.” And yet, while speaking to the All-In podcast last week, Trump commended Biden’s showing in the 2012 vice-presidential debate.

“He destroyed Paul Ryan,” Trump said. “So I’m not underestimating him.”

The flip-flop could be Trump’s belated effort to temper expectations of how he will perform against an incumbent president with extensive debating experience. With four presidential campaigns and two terms as vice-president on his résumé, Biden is no stranger to the debate stage, and he has shown a sharp ability to deliver pointed attacks on his opponents.

But as a sitting president who has reckoned with historically high inflation and multiple wars abroad since he took office, Biden goes into his next debate with a unique set of challenges that he must overcome to sell voters on re-electing him. Although Biden, 81, is only a few years older than Trump, 78, voters have expressed more concern about the president’s age than his opponent’s, and he will be looking to address those fears at the debate.

These five memorable moments from Biden’s past debate performances offer some insight into the president’s strengths – and vulnerabilities:

A lasting dig at Giuliani

In 2024, Biden is the president of the United States while Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s disgraced former lawyer. But in 2007, both men were presidential candidates. As the former mayor of New York who led the city through the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Giuliani was widely viewed as a frontrunner in the 2008 Republican primary race.

During a Democratic primary debate, Biden mocked Giuliani as “the most under-qualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency”, arguing he was incapable of making a coherent pitch for his candidacy.

“There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11. There’s nothing else,” Biden said.

The debate audience greeted the quip with laughter and applause, and the remark became one of the most enduring criticisms of Giuliani, whose presidential campaign eventually failed in spectacular fashion, giving way to an even more disgraceful downfall. Biden will be looking to deliver similarly memorable attack lines against Trump on Thursday.

A sorrowful moment during the Sarah Palin debate

Before the 2008 vice-presidential debate, Sarah Palin had already made headlines for her disastrous interview with Katie Couric and Tina Fey’s devastating impersonation of the self-proclaimed “hockey mom” from Alaska.

Biden’s debate strategy rested on amplifying his credentials without descending into condescension against Palin, who invoked the importance of “Joe Six-pack” Americans in an apparent effort to paint her opponent as out of touch. Biden confronted the criticism head-on by referencing his family background and the death of his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, demonstrating how he had known hardship in his life.

“I understand what it’s like to be a single parent,” Biden said. “I understand what it’s like to sit around the kitchen table with a father who says: ‘I’ve got to leave, champ, because there’s no jobs here … ’

“The notion that, somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to make it – I understand. I understand as well, with all due respect to the governor or anybody else, what it’s like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They’re looking for help.”

The exchange marked one of the most humanizing moments of the debate for Biden, who has now developed a reputation as the consoler-in-chief. Biden’s ability to connect his personal story with voters’ lives could give him an advantage over Trump, who has struggled to do the same.

A challenge to Paul Ryan’s expertise

While Biden may have pursued a more careful debate strategy in 2008, he came out swinging in 2012 against Paul Ryan, who was then Mitt Romney’s running mate.

As Ryan explained his plan to cut taxes by 20% while still preserving benefits for middle-class workers, Biden slammed the proposal as “not mathematically possible”. Any time Ryan attempted to justify the policy, Biden was quick to cut in with criticism.

Ryan then said: “Jack Kennedy lowered tax rates and increased growth.”

Biden replied: “Oh, now you’re Jack Kennedy?”

The comment alluded to Democrat Lloyd Bentsen’s infamous mockery of Republican Dan Quayle at the 1988 vice-presidential debate, and it appeared to successfully deflate some of Ryan’s grandiose vision for a new tax system.

If Biden pursues a similar approach on Thursday, it may serve two aims of undercutting Trump and mitigating concerns about the president’s mental sharpness.

A rebuke to Trump’s constant interruptions

The first debate between Biden and Trump in 2020 was defined by chaos. Trump repeatedly talked over Biden, while even moderator Chris Wallace struggled to get a word in edgewise. At one point, Biden attempted to answer a question about the supreme court, but he kept getting derailed by Trump’s comments about the “radical left” and efforts to “pack the court”.

Then, Biden reached his breaking point. “Will you shut up, man?” he said to Trump. “This is so unpresidential.”

The comment could have come off as petulant, but instead, it seemed to resonate with viewers as an attempt to inject order into a debate badly in need of it. Looking ahead to Thursday, CNN’s decision to mute the candidates’ mics when it is not their turn to speak may prevent similar interruptions, but Biden’s willingness to stand up to Trump could still play to his advantage.

An unforgettable instruction to the Proud Boys

Perhaps the most memorable moment from Biden and Trump’s first debate came when Wallace asked Trump to specifically condemn white supremacist and militia groups. Despite the simplicity of the request, Trump tried and failed to brush off the question.

“Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing,” Trump said. Pressed by Wallace, he added: “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”

Biden replied: “Say it. Do it. Say it.”

Trump then asked: “What do you want to call them? Give me a name.”

Biden supplied the name of the Proud Boys, a far-right and neo-fascist group, and Trump then issued this infamous instruction: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

The comment bolstered Democrats’ warnings about Trump empowering the far-right faction of his party, which appeared prescient after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. (The former national chair of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, was later sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in orchestrating the attack.)

As he prepares for his next debate, Biden will be looking to again put Trump on the record about his relationship with far-right groups and the violence they have caused.

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