First US presidential debate: Where Trump and Biden stand on 6 main issues

The debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will include six 15-minute segments on different topics.
The debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will include six 15-minute segments on different topics.PHOTOS: AFP, EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Donald Trump is promising to keep America great. Joe Biden wants to restore the soul of America.

But there is much more to discuss beyond those two slogans.

The long-anticipated first debate between Trump and Biden on Tuesday (Sept 29) night is expected to put a spotlight on pressing issues like the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 200,000 people in the United States, and the fight over the Supreme Court vacancy, whose outcome could affect American society for decades to come.

The debate will include six 15-minute segments on different topics selected by the moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News.

Here's a look at where Trump and Biden stand on those issues.


Trump has repeatedly claimed that his administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic was exceptional, saying he acted early to impose travel restrictions from China; worked with states to acquire equipment like ventilators; and pushed for the development of treatments and vaccines.

The record, however, reveals that the president consistently played down the threat from the virus in the early days when it could have been contained, and ignored or resisted advice from his top health officials. The United States failed to provide enough testing to know how the virus was spreading, and Trump clashed with governors over the need for protective equipment.

There is also mounting evidence of the ways in which Trump and the White House put immense political pressure on the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies to accept Trump's demands that the country reopen more quickly than they thought was safe.

And the president's demands for a vaccine that could be announced before the election have left the public health community wary of the effectiveness and safety of a vaccine when one is ready.

For many months, Biden has put a major focus on the virus, condemning Trump's handling of the pandemic and making that a central argument as he asks voters to deny the president a second term.

That is almost certain to be a major focus of Biden's in the debate, too. He has promised a starkly different approach to combating the virus, stressing the importance of deferring to scientific experts, and he has called for a national mask mandate, which Trump does not support. He has taken care to model good behaviour in his campaign, wearing a mask himself and refraining from holding rallies.


Until the pandemic, one of Trump's strongest arguments for reelection was the powerful performance of the economy, which had achieved low unemployment, strong growth and a soaring stock market.


Following the virus-induced shutdowns, the economy's growth has stalled and unemployment has soared, even with some recovery in recent months. On the campaign trail, Trump promises that the economy will recover - and get even better - if he is given a second term.

The president has also promised a future tax cut for the middle class, though he has not offered specifics, and he has said he wants to reduce the capital gains tax.

Though the economy has been a source of enduring strength for Trump in the polls, Biden is trying to chip away at the president's standing. He can point to Trump's handling of the pandemic to argue that the president's mismanagement has worsened Americans' economic pain. And he has portrayed Trump as fixated on the performance of the stock market and concerned only about wealthy people.

This summer, Biden rolled out his own set of economic proposals under the slogan "Build Back Better", including plans to invest in clean energy and to ensure that procurement spending goes toward American-made products.

One area where Biden may come under attack from Trump is tax policy. Biden is calling for tax increases on corporations and high-earning individuals, but he has said that no one earning less than US$400,000 (S$548,000) would face a tax hike.


The intense push to seat Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court before Election Day is part of the president's four-year effort to remake the federal judiciary, adding conservative-leaning judges to the bench at all levels. With the help of a Republican-controlled Senate, Trump is succeeding in that goal.


The president has already installed two other Supreme Court justices - Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - and more than 200 federal district and appeals court judges, shifting the ideological balance for years to come.

Biden has pledged to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court, though he has declined to follow Trump's lead and release a list of potential nominees. He has called for Senate Republicans to hold off on confirming a successor to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg until after the election, noting that early voting is already underway.

Biden has sought to tie the court vacancy to the fate of the Affordable Care Act, arguing that health coverage for millions of Americans is at stake in November's election. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments a week after Election Day in a challenge to the health law, and the Trump administration is asking the court to strike it down.


The president has seized upon unrest over racial justice as a defining difference between him and Biden, calling the protesters "rioters" and "anarchists" and overtly siding with the police in a bid to cast himself as a "law and order" leader.

The president and his campaign are using episodes of violence against the police to generate fear and support among his base. He has called for much more aggressive use of the National Guard to control disturbances, and has dismissed the Black Lives Matter organisation as a radical, violent group.

When he is pressed for accomplishments, Trump cites the First Step Act, which makes some reforms to federal sentencing laws, benefiting minorities. The bipartisan bill passed in 2018 and was signed into law by Trump.

Trump has attacked Biden as anti-law enforcement, often in exaggerated terms - though at times the president has also tried to cast him as overly punitive because of his work on the 1994 crime bill that encouraged incarceration.

Biden has repeatedly said that he opposes defunding the police, though Republicans have still falsely claimed that he supports that movement. He has condemned violence as well.

Biden has called for racial healing and pledged to confront systemic racism, a starkly different approach from Trump's. In July, Biden released a plan to address racial inequities in the economy.

Biden's message ties back to the origin of his campaign and themes of American values, as he often talks about being motivated to run by Trump's comments after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.


Trump's campaign has sought to highlight his "promises kept" during almost four years in the White House, telling voters that he has done what he said he would do as a candidate in 2016.


At his campaign rallies, the president focuses on trade, including his renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and imposition of tariffs on China and other countries. He boasts about his 2017 tax cuts and the growth in jobs before the coronavirus pandemic. He cites increases in military funding, his elimination of environmental regulations, peace agreements in the Middle East and actions to shut down immigration.

Many of the president's promises fell short, a point that Biden may highlight. Despite saying he would build a "big, beautiful wall" across the entire border with Mexico, the president has built only about 200 miles of wall, most of it replacements for existing barriers. He failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he has not controlled federal spending.

In addition to Trump's record in the White House, another issue likely to come up is his taxes. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, and The New York Times reported on Sunday that he paid only US$750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and in 2017.

Biden spent 36 years as a senator and eight years as vice president, so he has a voluminous record - giving him achievements to brag about, but also leaving him vulnerable over other aspects of his lengthy career.

Biden can point to accomplishments like the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, as well as the enactment of the Affordable Care Act and his work on the implementation of the 2009 stimulus package.

Trump has portrayed Biden's record in a very different light, and Biden has faced criticism over a number of votes during the 2020 campaign, including his support for the Iraq War, the 1994 crime bill and NAFTA.


Trump has spent much of the last year overtly questioning the integrity of the coming election, laying the groundwork for a legal and public relations assault if the initial count shows that he has lost the race. The president's primary focus in the past several months has been on mail-in ballots, which he claims - without any evidence - are subject to widespread fraud and should not be allowed.

Biden has warned that Trump is seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the election. "This president is going to try to indirectly steal the election by arguing that mail-in ballots don't work," he said in July.

Biden has also warned about possible foreign interference, vowing that as president, he would impose significant consequences for any meddling by foreign powers. Last week, he called Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power a "typical Trump distraction".