Trump and Biden tackle key issues in the first presidential debate

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

By Aparna Prabhakar

The two candidates discussed immigration, abortion, foreign policy, and more in their first rematch since the 2020 election cycle. 

The debate kicked off with a question about the economy – an issue that remains at the forefront of voters’ minds. Biden began by blaming Trump for mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that the Biden administration built the economy back up after its collapse in 2020. He then appealed to the working-class demographic, alluding to his own humble beginnings and promising to lower prices “around the kitchen table” if elected. On the other hand, Trump contended that his administration stewarded “the greatest economy in the history of the country”, nodding to his tax cuts, tariffs, and foreign policy. The former president condemned Biden for inflation and accused him of sabotaging Medicare and Social Security. The biggest difference between the two candidates’ approaches to the economy was their audience: while Biden attempted to appeal to working-class Americans, Trump targeted wealthy voters and donors.

The moderators then shifted the conversation to the abortion debate. Trump expressed his agreement with the Supreme Court in their decision to conserve access to abortion medication, but deferred decisions about Roe v. Wade and abortion procedures to the state level. He also declared his support for provisions for rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother while leaving the possibility of more conservative stances open, telling viewers to “follow your heart.” At the same time, he denigrated states with liberal abortion laws, claiming that they would not hesitate to take the life of an infant after birth. Biden used his allotted time to blame Trump personally, stating, “it’s been a terrible thing, what you’ve done.” He maintained that politicians should not be making decisions about womens’ health and then promised to restore Roe v. Wade, should he win a second term.  

The debate transitioned to the issue of immigration next. Biden defended his actions over the past four years, alleging that his administration has decreased illegal immigration by 40%. He also called his opponent out for his handling of those detained by ICE, referencing separated families and children held in cages. Conversely, Trump characterized the border during his presidency as the safest in American history. He went on to blame Biden for “the worst border in history,” specifically mentioning immigration from South America and the Middle East. The former president criticized immigrants as mentally unwell terrorists. 

The two candidates used the time allotted for their immigration rebuttals to instead debate about their work surrounding veteran welfare. Biden spoke about his late son, a veteran who passed in 2015 after serving in Iraq. Each candidate claimed the support of American veterans for their respective campaigns and called the other out for their lack of action and appreciation for the armed forces.

The moderators then introduced foreign policy, beginning with the war in Ukraine. Biden called Putin a “war criminal,” warning that if Russia gains control of Ukraine, its government would continue to take control of neighboring countries. He affirmed his support for Ukraine and referred to NATO as a strong alliance for its backing of the country. Alternatively, Trump stated that the war should never have begun in the first place and promised to have the conflict resolved prior to taking office in January.

The candidates then moved onto the possibility of a ceasefire in Gaza. Biden placed the blame on Hamas, declaring that his administration is continuing to work to eliminate the group. He expressed his support for Israel, pledging a continued supply of weapons to the country. Trump disagreed with Biden about Hamas’ role, attributing responsibility to Israel and claiming that the U.S. should “let them finish the job.” He also referred to Biden as a “bad Palestinian”, using the word as an insult. Both candidates supported the actions of the Israeli military. Neither mentioned the Palestinian people, spoke of human rights violations, or used the word “genocide.” When asked about the acknowledgement of an independent Palestinian state, both candidates changed the topic to other foreign policy issues. 

The moderators’ next question directed to Trump’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection. Trump denied responsibility for inciting the riots and violence that took place at the Capitol, stating that he encouraged his supporters to act “peacefully and patriotically.” In his response, Biden warned that Trump’s reelection could cause a “bloodbath” in November. Biden seized the opportunity to bring up his opponent’s felony convictions, contending that Trump has encouraged violence time and time again through his interactions with the Proud Boys. Biden proceeded to discuss Trump’s ongoing court cases, accusing him of abusing his presidential power to seek retribution on his political opponents. When asked about his felony convictions, Trump maintained that he “did nothing wrong” and claimed that Biden would likely be convicted in the future. The candidates went on to trade blows about the functionality of democracy under their opponents’ administrations until the moderators interrupted for a commercial break.

The candidates were then asked about their climate change policies. Biden immediately pointed fingers at Trump for leaving the Paris Climate Accords and discussed the importance of climate change for the future. Trump rebutted his opponent by asserting that the climate change agreement would have been an unnecessary expense for the country. He then accused Biden of destroying the country by “taking over” spaces like schools and hospitals. Biden responded with his climate goals, which included cutting down on pollution and reinforcing the Climate Corps. 

Whent the moderators directed their questions to the candidates individually, they asked them to address voters who were unsatisfied with their electability. When asked about his age factoring into his ability to serve, Biden reflected on his past term, reiterating his accomplishments and efforts in foreign policy. Trump referenced the cognitive assessments that he took during his term, challenging Biden to take the same tests. The candidates utilized their next response times to exchange verbal blows and extended their competition to the golf course by challenging each other to a match.

Trump’s next question tackled his willingness to accept the outcome of the election. The former president’s affirmative answer was contingent on the election being “fair and legal and good.” In his rebuttal, his opponent expressed doubt that Trump would accept the results if he disliked them.

Both candidates ended the debate by delivering closing statements that attempted to garner support from voters by pushing their opponents down. Biden referenced multiple actions and pieces of legislation that his administration put in place in an effort to reverse Trump-era politics. Following this, Trump ended his statement by accusing Biden of failing the country and lauding himself as the candidate to restore the country to its former glory.

Biden’s debate performance triggered a negative response from Democrats across the country. Analysts and strategists referred to the president’s political image as disastrous, painful, and poor. Many donors, Congresspeople, and state-level lawmakers called for his stepping aside to allow a new Democratic candidate to face off against Trump. Conversely, Republicans are celebrating Trump’s performance. His campaign referred to his execution as “the greatest debate performance and victory in history to the largest voter audience in history.” In a flash poll by CNN, 67% of respondents thought Donald Trump won the debate, while 33% sided with Biden. 

The impact of the debate will play out in the coming months. Trump is set to receive the official Republican nomination at the Republican National Convention this July. If Biden proceeds with his campaign without stepping aside for another candidate, he will receive the Democratic nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August. For now, the two candidates will return to their campaign trails with hopes of garnering support from undecided voters across the country.