Emil Guillermo: Post-debate, who needs to make the tougher choice–voters or Joe Biden?

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The earliest presidential debate in U.S. history was supposed to shake up the race and reset the campaign for the president with a 38 percent approval rating.

Instead, we are left wondering who has the tougher choice—voters or Joe Biden. Four more years--is he able?

It was not a good debate for the president.

But he may have found his secret weapon--the first African American- Asian American vice president ever--Kamala Harris.

After Biden’s lackluster performance, Harris went on CNN and, like a good veep, stood up for her boss.

“What we saw tonight is the President making a very clear contrast with Donald Trump on all the issues that matter to the American people,” Harris said. “Yes, there was a slow start, but it was a strong finish. And what became very clear through the course of the night is that Joe Biden is fighting on behalf of the American people on substance, on policy, on performance. Joe Biden is extraordinarily strong.”

Harris also looked strong. She was filled with an appealing youthful political vigor.

It was everything Joe Biden wasn’t on Thursday night.

There’s no spinning that.

But Harris wasn’t spinning. She acknowledged it was rough the first few minutes, including a moment where Biden seemed to lose his thoughts. Was he talking about Covid? Medicare?

And then there was Trump.

45 may have sounded louder and clearer than 46, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be 47, not when 45 was all bluster and lies.

By CNN’s own count, both men made misstatements, but Trump made dozens of lies, triple the number of Biden’s, and more consequential.

Here’s a short list:

Trump said the U.S. currently has the biggest budget deficit ever. That happened under Trump, the tax cutter.

Trump said food prices quadrupled under Biden. That was an overstatement.

Trump said he signed the largest tax cut in U.S. history. It wasn’t.

Trump downplayed his role in Jan. 6, and also said Rep. Nancy Pelosi turned down his request to send in 10,000 National Guard troops that day. No such offer was made to Pelosi. In fact, the president, not Pelosi, had the power to deploy the DC guard. He didn’t.

Trump said he never called dead service members “suckers and losers,” but it was verified by former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly in The Atlantic magazine.

One lie I knew instantly came when Trump said he didn’t have sex with a porn star. But Stormy Daniels testified under oath that Trump did, just not very satisfyingly.

So ask yourself who is more presidential: the man who lies loudly or the moral man who apparently was recovering from a recent cold?

Biden may have had a bad 90 minutes in the debate, but that doesn’t erase the good he’s done the last four years in action.

Or does it?

Pre-debate, I thought Biden had to check some things off for me.

I presumed he’d win on policy.

But Biden had to deliver on the three visceral E’s.

He needed give voters a reason to get enthusiastic about his existing presidency.

He had to show he had the energy to do the job another four years.

And he had to avoid embarrassment. That, I figured, might be the hardest, but he only had one bad verbal lapse. But combined with the scratchiness in his voice, his performance did not inspire confidence.

I did find Trump more of an embarrassment, though, lying about sleeping with Stormy Daniels and being called out by Biden for the E. Jean Carroll sexual abuse case.

Still, commentators in post-debate analysis seemed quick to pounce on Biden more than Trump. Wouldn’t you rather vote on the Biden record, both as a man and as a president, which is much better than he gets credit for? On the economy and jobs, on the defense of reproductive rights, on civil rights.

Biden also doesn’t have Trump’s 34 felony convictions, a point that came up but was never really highlighted by Biden. Instead, Trump used it to bring up more lies, baselessly suggesting Biden’s possible criminality connected to his son Hunter.

Whenever that sort of thing happened, I just thought of the direct comparison between Trump and Biden on Asian American issues. One of the first things Biden did when he became president was to protect Asian Americans under siege during the pandemic. That’s how bad it was after Trump, the “Kung Flu” president, scapegoated our entire community.


If a debate is intended to help clarify support for a candidate going forward, this one just made things more unclear.

I had said Biden’s 38 percent approval rating was so low that we might have another Hillary Clinton situation, in which Democrats win the popular vote but lose undecided voters in key swing states.

After the debate, some commentators on CNN and MSNBC reported that high-level Democrats were panicked, worried that if Biden were still at the top of the ticket, it would be disastrous for Democrats down ballot.

Was it that bad?

Style-wise, yes.

The flash polls CNN took among debate watchers indicated style did matter, with Trump beating Biden, 67 percent to 33 percent.

The buzz on social media made that feel like 95 to 5 for Trump.

But did the debate change anyone’s mind? 81 percent of poll respondents said the debate had no effect. That’s way more than the 5 percent who saif they had changed their mind. Or the 14 percent who said they are now reconsidering their vote.

More hopeful were the surrogates like Harris and fellow Californian Governor Gavin Newsom, who had strong words for those who might think Biden should be replaced before the Democratic convention.

“We’ve got to have the back of this president,” Newsom told MSNBC. “You don’t turn your back because of one performance. What kind of party does that?”

Newsom cited 15.6 million jobs added under Biden, more than eight times the number from the last three Republican presidents combined. “This president delivered; we need to deliver for him,” said Newsom, as he tried to put a stop to talk about replacing Biden. “It’s unhelpful to our democracy, to the future of this country, and the world. They need us right now to step up, and that’s exactly what I intend to do right now.”

It was a pep talk the Democrats didn’t figure they’d need prior to Thursday.

What would be more telling is if Joe Biden looks at the debate video the day after. Would he like his own performance, or be honest enough to make the tough call himself for his party and his country? To retire graciously into private life.

After the debate, we may be at that point.

If not, expect to see a lot more of Kamala Harris, Gavin Newsom, and others standing up for Biden.

Harris, in particular, showed last night how she may be the best thing in a Biden-Harris ticket.

Republicans have already shown an eagerness to go racist and misogynist against Harris, one reason the Biden administration seemingly has kept her hidden.

But with reproductive rights of women one of the strongest issues the Democrats have, leaning in on the vice president at this point may be the Democrats’ best, if not only, answer.


NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on