The first of two scheduled presidential debates was held in Atlanta on Thursday night. The event, hosted by CNN, was the first meeting between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump since 2020. While each candidate hoped to get a campaign boost from the debate, each faced criticism for their performance, with Biden in particular underperforming.

Biden’s stumbles overshadow his points

Biden entered the debate with lingering questions about his age, and his performance did not ease those concerns. The president sounded hoarse and soft-spoken during much of the event and repeatedly stumbled over his words; sources say the president had been dealing with a cold, and Biden has often talked about his stuttering speech impediment. Despite these explanations, Biden’s performance played into the concerns about his ability to handle the duties of the presidency. The discussion about his performance has also overshadowed many of his answers in the debate, in which he laid out his administration’s accomplishments in areas such as economic recovery, protecting health care and bringing down prescription drug prices, as well as his plans for a second term, such as shoring up Social Security and abortion rights. He also argued that Trump was one of the worst presidents in American history, pointing toward things such as his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his role in overturning Roe v. Wade by appointing three Supreme Court justices who voted against Roe.

Trump pushes his agenda and his lies

Trump, meanwhile, appeared more coherent than he has at recent campaign stops in which he would seemingly ramble about random topics. In the debate, he hammered home his talking points, criticizing Biden’s presidency over issues such as immigration, crime and inflation while painting his own as a success. In doing so, Trump often avoided answering the moderators’ questions on climate change, instead using his time to push whatever agenda he wanted to discuss. He also downplayed his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection and did not give a clear answer when repeatedly asked if he would accept the results of the 2024 presidential election regardless of who won the race. Trump also lied throughout the debate; at one point, Biden said, “I never heard so much malarkey in my whole life.” While CNN fact-checkers cite Biden for making nine false or misleading statements during the debate, they noted Trump made over 30 such statements. Among other things, Trump falsely claimed that abortion doctors execute babies after birth, that legal scholars and the public uniformly wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, that the Jan. 6 insurrection was Nancy Pelosi’s fault and that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020.

Failure to keep the debate on-topic throughout the night

This debate featured changes to the usual format to control the conversation better. There was no live audience for the candidates to rile up, and the moderators were strict about keeping each man to his allotted time, cutting off their microphones when they went over or when it was the other candidate’s turn to speak. Despite these measures, the conversation often went off the rails. While the moderators repeated unanswered questions — primarily by Trump — they did not fact-check any responses. They also could not keep the candidates on topic, with both men returning to previous discussions even after new questions were asked. At times, the disagreements between Biden and Trump became personal; at one point, the two candidates even challenged one another to a round of golf in an exchange journalist Philip Lewis called “both the oldest and whitest moment of the debate.”

So far, the Trump camp is more pleased with the debate than Biden’s supporters are. With just over four months until the election, time will tell how much this debate will impact the 2024 presidential race.