Key takeaways from the 2020 final presidential debate: NPR

The last presidential debate of the 2020 election season was calmer and more political than the first. But did either candidate change the dynamics of the race?


President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated one last time last night. This was a more substantial exchange of ideas compared to the first debate. There are now 11 days left in this campaign. NPR’s Tamara Keith and Asma Khalid were watching last night. Hello ladies.



KING: Tam, let me start with you. The title is The President Withheld.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, he took a lot of heat even from his allies after all the interruptions in the first debate. They kept saying, if you just let Joe Biden speak, maybe he’ll make a mistake. And clearly, as you say, President Trump was more restrained this time around, but some 48 million people voted between the first debate and this one. As far as his message goes, Trump touched on themes I heard in his keynote speech, things like the economy was great before the coronavirus pandemic, and it still will be. Biden won’t be good for the economy, he says. And he repeated a line about doing more in 47 months than Biden did in 47 years, the idea that Biden is a career politician. Trump has frequently returned to these ideas and attacks.

KING: Asma, you followed the Biden campaign. How did he ward off these attacks? How did he do it?

KHALID: You know, really, Noel, it sounded like a status quo debate for Joe Biden. It does not appear to have drastically changed the course of the race. His closing argument was that he was going to be a president for everyone, even the people who don’t vote for him, and that has been a constant arc in his campaign. You know, I think what was remarkable was that he was able to talk at length about politics because, you know, as you all mentioned, there were just fewer interruptions, and that allowed Biden to stay focused. You know, and I thought this was particularly important in relation to the pandemic. Initially, in his very first response, he made this pitch quite clearly around COVID.


JOE BIDEN: Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans dead. You don’t hear anything else that I’m saying tonight, hear this – whoever is responsible for not having taken control – in fact, don’t say that I am – I take no responsibility, initially – whoever is responsible for so many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America.

KING: Tam, President Trump’s campaign is haunted by the pandemic. How did he deal with questions about this last night?

KEITH: You know, in many ways his answers haven’t changed since April. He says he closed the border. It could have been worse. A vaccine is coming very soon, although he has admitted in this debate that there is no guarantee that he will be ready within the few weeks he is bragging about. And he insisted that the cure cannot be worse than the ailment.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re learning to live with it. We have no choice. You can’t lock yourself in a basement like Joe does.

KEITH: Joe’s thing in the basement is something Trump and his allies say all the time, but Biden was ready with a response that went to all Americans who have been killed by the virus.


BIDEN: You people at home with an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning, that man or woman laying down tonight and reaching out to try and touch their – out of habit, where their wife was. or their husband – is gone. Learn to live with it, come on. We die with it.

KEITH: Trump has said he wants schools to open. Biden said he had done it too, but he wanted them to have the resources to do it. Dare I say that they actually had an exchange of ideas on how to deal with the pandemic that went beyond the absolutism of open or close?

KING: Another thing we expected Tam last night was for President Trump to personally attack Joe Biden. Did he take this road?

KEITH: Oh, he did. The countryside had built him, and he did. He sued Biden over his son Hunter’s foreign trade relations, including with a Ukrainian company and a Chinese company. You know, however, he didn’t make it clear and convincing that someone who hasn’t watched FOX or read conservative blogs would be able to really follow. It was almost as if he was speaking in shorthand. And Biden responded by saying you can see he didn’t receive money from overseas because he released his tax returns and sued Trump for not releasing his. But Biden’s main response was simply to say that this White House race is not about the Biden family or the Trump family.


TRUMP: Excuse me – just a second, please.

KRISTEN WELKER: I would like to go to – 10 seconds, Mr. Speaker, 10 seconds.

TRUMP: That’s a typical political statement. Let’s leave this China story behind, and then he looks – the family, around the table, everything – just a typical politician when I see that.

WELKER: Okay. Now let’s talk about North Korea.

TRUMP: I am not a typical politician.


TRUMP: That’s why I was elected.

KEITH: I think it’s remarkable that after the debate, when the Trump campaign held a call with reporters, they put a lot more emphasis on Trump portraying Biden as a career politician than they did. did on Hunter Biden stuff.

KING: Asma, let me ask you a question about this. Joe Biden is a career politician. He has a long record to defend. Last night, did he do it successfully?

KHALID: You know, I was struck, I would say, by the way he tried to seemingly define himself as his own man, despite having that long record and being, you know, quite often associated with Barack Obama. He ran during the primaries on Obama’s legacy. But last night on two big issues, health care and immigration, he tried to make distinctions with the person he is often referred to as his former pal Barack. When Biden was asked why people should trust him now on immigration reform, given the record number of deportations under President Obama’s administration, he basically answered because I will be the president, not the vice president. And when it comes to health care, you know, he pointed out that his vision would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act. It’s a plan he nicknamed Bidencare. President Trump has tried to label Biden’s ideas as socialized medicine and has repeatedly quoted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, to whom Biden joked …


BIDEN: He thinks he’s fighting someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all these other people because I didn’t agree with them. Joe Biden, he’s running against him.

KHALID: And, Noel, you know, there was another aspect of Biden’s record that came back repeatedly all night. It was his support for a 1990s crime bill. Biden acknowledged that in the past Congress had made mistakes regarding drug sentences, but he also defended the Obama administration’s record of ‘cancel the sentences of thousands of people. And later that night, Biden really tried to highlight his character, his identity directly to viewers, by telling the audience to compare what he knew about him to what he knew about President Trump.

KING: Okay. Tam, let me ask you – we have almost 50 million people who have already voted. The president is behind in the polls and as a result it was understood he was looking for a big mistake from Biden to grab last night. Did he understand it?

KEITH: Well, it all depends on your definition of great, but President Trump caught a moment when it comes to energy. He was looking for Biden to say something he could use to paint him as too left. And Biden spoke of a slow transition to dependence on fossil fuels.


TRUMP: would you shut down the oil industry?

BIDEN: I would transition from the oil industry, yes. I would make the transition.

TRUMP: Oh, that’s a big statement …

BIDEN: That’s a big statement …

TRUMP: That’s a big statement.

BIDEN: … Because I would stop …

WELKER: Why would you do that?

BIDEN: Because the oil industry pollutes a lot.

TRUMP: Oh, I see.

BIDEN: Here’s the deal …

TRUMP: That’s a big statement.

BIDEN: Well, if you’ll let me finish the statement – because it’s got to be replaced with renewable energy over time, over time. And I would stop giving – to the oil industry, I would stop giving them federal grants.

KEITH: And Trump really jumped on it. He was like, hey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, did you hear that? However, the political reality is such that it may not be as serious a blunder as the president thinks. An August poll found that a slim majority of voters in Pennsylvania oppose fracking, and Biden is looking for a strong turnout from young voters concerned about climate change.

KING: Tamara Keith and Asma Khalid from NPR, thanks guys.

KEITH: You’re welcome.

KHALID: You’re welcome.

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