Two Appearances, Two Starkly Different Bidens

Millions of Americans saw one Joe Biden on Thursday night: halting, hesitant, meandering and looking burdened by every one of his 81 years. Democrats were aghast.

Fourteen hours later, a smaller number of television viewers saw a different Joe Biden: forceful and confident, landing political punches on former President Donald J. Trump with ease. Democrats in the room cheered.

Mr. Biden and his allies no doubt wished the appearances had been delivered in reverse order. The tepid and weak debate performance by Joe Biden One caused an immediate freak-out among those determined to see Mr. Trump lose in November. Some publicly broached the unthinkable: a new candidate.

The afternoon appearance in a fairground warehouse in North Carolina was seen by far fewer people, and seemed unlikely to immediately quell the hand-wringing among Washington consultants, media pundits and ordinary voters.

And yet, in the middle of the panic, Joe Biden Two showed that, even after five decades in public life, he can still pump his fist in the air, stir a crowd to cheer and perhaps inspire an unwieldy coalition to vote for him one more time.

But questions remain. Could that Mr. Biden have handled the rigid rules of the debate, which mandated no notes, no teleprompter and no audience for 90 minutes? And even if he had shown up on Thursday night, could he appear day after day for the remaining four months of the campaign?

The Republican answer was no even before Thursday’s debate. That part of Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Biden is certain to only intensify in the days ahead. And some Democrats who had long worried in private that the answer was no showed that they were more willing to say so publicly, at least for now.

Early Friday morning after the debate, Mr. Biden gave reporters a hardly inspiring “I think we did well.” On Friday afternoon, he acknowledged his age and its impact on his ability to perform on the largest political stage.

“I know I’m not a young man,” he told his supporters, adding, “I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to.”

But the differences in the two appearances could not have been more stark.

On Thursday night, Joe Biden One struggled to deliver sharp and cogent critiques of Mr. Trump despite having spent more than a week hunkered down at Camp David, surrounded by a revolving cast of aides and provided plenty of time to rest up.

He started to answer a question about debt by mixing up trillionaires and billionaires and then bragged about “what I’ve been able to do with the, with, with the Covid — excuse me, with dealing with everything we have to do with.” And after trailing off and pausing, he ended with a blunt statement: “We finally beat Medicare.”

That gave Mr. Trump one of his many openings: “Well, he’s right. He did beat Medicare. He beat it to death.”

Joe Biden Two provided a stark contrast. Over about 20 minutes — and with the help of a teleprompter and an enthusiastic crowd — he rarely missed a beat.

“He set, and I mean this sincerely, a new record for the most lies told in a single debate,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Trump.

Accusing Mr. Trump of being one of two presidents to leave office with fewer American jobs than he began with, Mr. Biden said, “That’s why I call him Donald ‘Herbert Hoover’ Trump.”

After listing the legal cases filed against his rival, Mr. Biden said: “I thought to myself, Donald Trump is not just a convicted felon. Donald Trump is a one-man crime wave.”

All three were the kind of zingers that could have paid enormous political benefits had they been delivered with the same verve on Thursday night.

Joe Biden Two gave clear and concise descriptions of his positions on abortion, immigration, taxes and race. Joe Biden One confusingly conflated the issues, sometimes in the same sentence. Joe Biden Two was clear about Mr. Trump’s threat to democracy. Joe Biden One left viewers scratching their heads about the topic that the president has long said motivated his run in 2020.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden’s remarks on Friday will take off on social media or be repeated by the press enough to make a difference.

But either way, the president’s supporters were confronting a difficult reality: The only way any candidate named Joe Biden will defeat Mr. Trump for another four years in the White House is to make sure that the version who shows up every day is Joe Biden Two.

Reid Hoffman, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors, seemed to hold out such a hope in emailing his network on Friday to try to tamp down talk of replacing Mr. Biden.

“I tuned into Biden’s rally in North Carolina this afternoon. He was energized and brutally effective in taking down Trump’s vitriol and lies,” he wrote, adding: “I wish we’d had that Biden last night, but that’s the nature of Joe Biden. When he does poorly, he tends to bounce back — and then win.”

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