Joe Biden, The Biden-Trump Debate, And Some Persuasion Advice


As we approach the June 27 debate between President Biden and presumptive nominee Trump, much advice has been forthcoming as to how Mr. Biden should proceed.  Written without benefit of polling data or focus groups, the below column makes suggestions based on persuasion techniques.

To prevail in Thursday’s debate and then in the election, Joe Biden must ask “who” needs persuading about “what?”  The “who” is clear – those, rightly or not, disappointed in his leadership,  concerned by the “he’s too old” drumbeat, or disaffected from voting by single issues, be it Gaza or student loan forgiveness or the economy.

And the “what?”

  • Age and mental acuity;
  • The dangers Trump poses;
  • The substantive and tangible differences, immediate and long-term, of a Biden second term.

What’s left is the “how?”  It is here that advocacy and persuasion lessons provide guidance.

Let’s start with mental sharpness.  The shorter and more factual the answer to a question, the sharper President Biden will appear; the more rambling, the more he will play into stereotypes.  That means drop the ‘Look, let me tell you…’  prefaces.

To highlight mental acuity, Mr. Biden must answer the questions posed, rather than moving into talking points.  And when Trump doesn’t answer questions, Mr. Biden can say “he didn’t answer your question; I will.”  After the third or fourth time, Biden should respond with “That’s the third time he couldn’t answer your question.  Is he ducking it…or isn’t HE sharp enough to understand.”

One more essential is the “don’t repeat yourself” rule.  We get it – Biden/Harris are pro-choice, Trump/whoever are a clear and present danger to reproductive freedom and health.  Say it once; and if you need emphasis, highlight specific Trump proposals, like arresting women who seek abortions.  But the audience wants more than a broken record.

Succinctness wins –  if you can say it in eight to twelve words, do it.  “Donald Trump talked infrastructure for four years; we did it in one.”  Then list how – “new bridges, safer roads, cleaner water.”  Bring to that a new tagline.  “There he goes again” has been taken and will seem coached, artificial, and insincere.  The mantra for Trump’s plans can be as simple as “that hurts America,” or its variant “that will hurt our children” or “our air” or “the water you need to drink.”  And the flip side?  “That only helps the rich.”  Not one word more – except for a concrete illustration as to how.  Of course, offering illustrations must not be tone deaf.  For instance, Biden’s job numbers are great; but touting them too much ignores the financial squeeze many people feel.

When there is an issue – be it immigration or Israel/Gaza – that takes more time to respond to, Biden should say so.  “That issue isn’t a one liner.  Mr. Trump forgets that we have an asylum law that says we must …  And remember, with Republicans we had a plan to fix the system..until this man said ‘vote no.’  That hurt America.”

Calling Trump a clear and present danger to democracy or our standing in the world is true but doesn’t persuade.  Specifics do:

  • “This last week we had floods, fire fires, heat waves. Donald Trump believes none of that is caused by humans.  We do – and we’re trying to heal the earth.  He won’t.”
  • “If you are or know or love an immigrant, LGBTQ, a racial or ethnic minority, the judges he picked and will pick are a danger.”
  • “If you believe the rich and corporations must pay their fair share, Donald Trump is your worst nightmare and the friend of the billionaires.”

And the final need?  Humility.   Because there is anger over single issues, Mr. Biden has to acknowledge that not everyone agrees on everything he does, but the vote won’t be about that one issue – it will be about every danger and harm Mr. Trump poses and the alternatives we  have.

Humility is also best deployed when discussing Trump’s felony convictions.  Mr. Biden, wait for your moment and look for the flip.  If Trump  talks of “weaponized” justice, call him out.  Your son was convicted by that system, and you respected the jury.   If Trump’s attack is personal, Biden’s response should be: “jurors are citizens.  Citizens found you guilty of fraud and liable for defamation and sexual assault; and in case you forget, the New York courts are not a part of the U.S. government.”  And say no more.

Trump will lay traps, say outrageous things, and play to fear and prejudice.  But persuasion tools abound – it is a matter of understanding and deploying them.


Thanks to Professors Marian Braccia and Elizabeth Lippy for their substantive comments and improvements.

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