US elections: 10 days to go

Takeaways from the final presidential debate

First Lady Melania Trump (left) stands with President Donald Trump as Jill Biden (right) hugs husband Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden after the final presidential debate in Nashville on Oct 22, 2020.
First Lady Melania Trump (left) stands with President Donald Trump as Jill Biden (right) hugs husband Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden after the final presidential debate in Nashville on Oct 22, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

In the final presidential debate on Thursday, President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden made their case on why Americans should vote for them with just under two weeks to go to election day. Here are some debate highlights:

1 Coronavirus

The debate highlighted stark differences in both men's views of the Covid-19 situation in the United States, which is experiencing what some are describing as a third surge in cases, this time centred on the Midwest.

The audience was left to weigh whether they thought Mr Trump had a plan, decide whose prediction of the future they found more sensible, and choose whether to find Mr Trump responsible for America's 220,000 coronavirus deaths so far.

Mr Trump made a rosy prediction that the virus "will go away" and that the US is "rounding the turn", asserting that a vaccine could be just weeks away - a claim he has been making for weeks.

In contrast, Mr Biden warned that America was about to enter a "dark winter", echoing earlier warnings by public health experts and officials.

This, said Mr Biden, was compounded by the Trump administration's lack of a clear plan for containing the coronavirus and the likelihood that a vaccine would not be available for a majority of Americans before the middle of next year.

Mr Trump replied: "I don't know if we're going to have a dark winter at all. We're opening up our country. We've learnt and studied, and understand the disease, which we didn't at the beginning."

Asked to lay out his plan on dealing with the virus going forward, the President said it was a worldwide problem and defended his initial handling of the outbreak. Mr Biden said he would urge everyone to wear a mask all the time, invest in rapid testing, and help schools and businesses to reopen safely.

Mr Trump said Americans were learning to live with the virus, to which Mr Biden replied: "Learning to live with it? We're dying with it."

2 Foreign policy and entanglements

The two discussed their foreign policy on China and North Korea, but the debate was mostly a rehash of positions and criticisms they had stated before.

Mr Trump repeated his argument that China footed the bill for his trade war's tariffs - a claim roundly rejected by economists, who say the cost is borne by taxpayers instead.

Mr Biden, who has said he would focus on international norms and alliances as president, said he would make China play by international rules. He also slammed Mr Trump for "embracing thugs" like Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But the debate turned to focus heavily on both men's potential foreign entanglements, with a detailed back and forth on Mr Trump's taxes and deals, and the business dealings in China of Mr Biden's son, Hunter.

Said Mr Biden: "I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life... You have not released a single solitary year of your tax return. What are you hiding? Why are you unwilling? The foreign countries are paying you a lot."

Foreign relations watchers were not impressed. "The inadequacy of the national security section of the debate underscores why (the Commission on Presidential Debates) erred in not having one debate devoted to foreign policy. Worse, most of tonight's exchange was not about foreign policy but about alleged corruption," wrote Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass on Twitter.

3 Traditional debate

Compared with the first debate, which was a mess of crosstalk and interruptions, Thursday's debate was relatively sedate and civil. This was likely at least partially due to a rule change that muted each speaker's microphone during the other candidate's opening answer. And though there was a dash of insults - Mr Trump mocked Mr Biden for "hiding" in his basement instead of hitting the campaign trail hard, while Mr Biden accused Mr Trump of golfing instead of working on a virus relief package with Congress - they were nowhere near the intensity and rancour of the first debate.

The change would have reassured, and was possibly also aimed at, undecided voters who did not like the President's combative manner in the first debate. Several polls found that most people thought Mr Biden won the previous debate.

The civility of the latest debate allowed more time for the candidates to delve into policy, with healthcare, immigration and climate change among the issues they sparred over.

4 A racist President?

The closing segment of the debate was about race issues, but quickly turned into a referendum on the President and his character.

"I am the least racist person in this room," Mr Trump said in response to whether his comments, including calling the Black Lives Matter movement a symbol of hate and sharing a video of a man chanting "white power", encouraged racial strife.

Pointing to his passing of criminal justice reform and prison reform policies, Mr Trump said nobody else had done more for the black community, with the exception of founding father Abraham Lincoln.

Mr Biden said, sarcastically: "Abraham Lincoln here is one of the most racist presidents we've had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire... he has a dog whistle as big as a foghorn."

Who was this exchange aimed at? Black voters have been solidly behind Mr Biden, although Mr Trump has gained some ground among black men, and were unlikely to be swayed. A New York Times-Siena College national poll on Tuesday found that 90 per cent of black voters said they would vote for Mr Biden, while 4 per cent said they would go for Mr Trump.

Instead, the exchange was more likely aimed at white voters uncomfortable with the President's statements on race issues, who might reject him on the basis of that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2020, with the headline 'Takeaways from the final presidential debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe