Donald Trump and Joe Biden offered starkly different visions for combating the coronavirus pandemic during Thursday night’s final presidential debate in Nashville – perhaps the last chance for the president to shift the dynamics of a race that increasingly favors his Democratic opponent with less than two weeks until election day.
The evening in Nashville began relatively calmly, with the rivals making their closing arguments to the nation amid a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans and infected millions more, including the president. In part due to the pandemic, more than 40 million Americans have already cast their ballot, shattering records and leaving Trump an increasingly narrow window to reset the debate.
Trump continued to downplay the severity of the public health crisis, defending his response and predicting that a vaccine was imminent, even though his own public health experts have said one would likely not be widely available to the American public until next summer.
“It will go away,” Trump said, offering a rosy assessment of the pandemic’s trajectory even as cases have started rising again across the US and public health experts warn that the US is on the precipice of a dangerous new wave.
“We’re rounding the corner,” he added.
“We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy,” Trump said. “There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level nobody’s ever seen before. The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”
In contrast, Biden opened his remarks by acknowledging the grim toll of the coronavirus pandemic and warned that the nation must prepare for “a dark winter”.
Biden said: “220,000 deaths. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this. Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States.”
The 90-minute debate was a far more civil affair than the first presidential debate last month, which devolved into a chaotic brawl with Trump incessantly hectoring his opponent and sparring with the moderator. On Thursday, Trump largely abided by the rules, allowing Biden to speak uninterrupted, and even complimenting the moderator, the NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker, who he spent the last week criticizing.
Biden, too, was more restrained. When Trump made a false claim about his opponent, Biden looked skyward, as if calling on a higher power to keep him from reacting. But it didn’t always stop him.
When Trump said Biden called his decision to impose Covid-19 related travel restrictions on China “xenophobic”, the Democrat shot back: “He is xenophobic, but not because he cut off access from China.”
The candidates clashed sharply on their finances and family business entanglements, with Trump repeatedly leveling unsubstantiated claims about the president’s son, Hunter Biden. The Democratic nominee defended his son and categorically denied the accusations as he sought to turn the conversation back to policy.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey,” Biden said, speaking directly to the camera. “He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family. It’s about your family.”
Mocking Biden’s direct appeals to the American people, Trump said it was a political cliche to invoke the “kitchen table” and said he would never employ such a tactic. “I’m not a typical politician,” he said. “That’s why I got elected.”
Both candidates were asked to speak directly to the black and brown Americans about racism in American. Biden said plainly that institutional racism exists and that combatting racial inequality would be a priority of his administration. Trump, ignoring the prompt, assailed his opponent and then claimed once again that he had done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Scoffing at the notion that Trump would liken himself to Lincoln, Biden said Trump was “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history” and “pours fuel on every single racist fire”.
Despite the cascading public health and economic crises, Biden has maintained a steady lead over the incumbent, according to public opinion polls, while Trump has struggled to outline his vision for a second term and grapple with voters’ disapproval of his response to the pandemic.
Trump’s angry performance in the first presidential debate was poorly reviewed, and Biden only strengthened his polling lead following the clash.
This time, each candidate had his microphone muted while his rival delivered a two-minute response to each of the six predetermined debate topics, which included: fighting Covid-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.