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Takeaways From The Final Presidential Debate Of 2020


President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated for a final time last night. This was a more substantive exchange of ideas when 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. Good morning, ladies.



KING: Tam, let me start with you. The headline is the president restrained himself.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, he took a lot of heat even from his allies after all the interrupting in the first debate. They kept saying, if you just let Joe Biden speak, maybe he'll slip up. And clearly, as you say, President Trump was more restrained this time, but some 48 million people voted between the first debate and this one. In terms of his message, Trump hit themes I've heard in his stump speech, things like the economy was great before the coronavirus pandemic, and it will be again. Biden won't be good for the economy, he says. And he repeated a line about doing more in 47 months than Biden has done in 47 years, the idea that Biden is a career politician. Trump came back to these ideas and attacks frequently.

KING: Asma, you've been following the Biden campaign. How did he parry those attacks? How did he do?

KHALID: You know, really, Noel, it felt like a very status quo debate for Joe Biden. It doesn't seem like it dramatically changed the trajectory of the race. His closing argument was that he was going to be a president for all people, even people who do not vote for him, and that's been a consistent arc in his campaign. You know, I think what was notable is that he was able to speak at length about policy because, you know, as you all mentioned, there were just fewer interruptions, and that allowed Biden to keep his focus. You know, and I thought that was particularly salient when it came to the pandemic. At the outset, in his very first response, he made this pitch quite clearly around COVID.


JOE BIDEN: Two hundred twenty thousand Americans dead. You hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this - anyone who is responsible for not taking control - in fact, not saying I'm - I take no responsibility, initially - anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.

KING: Tam, President Trump's campaign is haunted by the pandemic. How did he manage questions about it last night?

KEITH: You know, in many ways, his answers haven't changed since April. He says he shut down the border. It could have been worse. A vaccine is coming very soon, though he admitted in this debate that there's no guarantee it will be ready in the matter of weeks timeline that he's been boasting about. And he insisted that the cure can't be worse than the disease.


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

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


BIDEN: You folks home who have an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning, that man or wife going to bed tonight and reaching over to try to touch their - out of habit, where their wife or husband was - is gone. Learning to live with it - come on. We're dying with it.

KEITH: Trump said he wanted schools to open. Biden said he did, too, but he wanted them to have the resources to do it. Dare I say that they actually had an exchange of ideas about how to handle the pandemic that got beyond sort of the absolutism of either it's open or it's all shut down?

KING: Another thing that we expected, Tam, last night was that President Trump would personally attack Joe Biden. Did he go down that road?

KEITH: Oh, he did. The campaign had built it up, and he did. He went after Biden for his son Hunter's foreign business dealings, including with a Ukrainian company and a Chinese company. You know, he didn't, though, lay it out in a clear and cogent way that someone who hasn't been watching FOX or reading conservative blogs would be able to really follow. It was almost like he was speaking in a shorthand. And Biden responded saying that you can see that he didn't get any money from overseas because he's released his tax returns and went after Trump for not releasing his. But Biden's main response was just to say that this race for the White House isn't about the Biden family or the Trump family.


TRUMP: Excuse me - just one second, please.

KRISTEN WELKER: I do want to turn to - 10 seconds, Mr. President, 10 seconds.

TRUMP: That's a typical political statement. Let's get off this China thing, and then he looks - the family, around the table, everything - just a typical politician when I see that.

WELKER: All right. Let's talk about North Korea now.

TRUMP: I'm not a typical politician.


TRUMP: That's why I got elected.

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

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

KHALID: You know, I was struck, I would say, by how he tried to seemingly define himself as being his own man, despite the fact that he has this long record and the fact that he's, you know, quite often been 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 draw some distinctions with the person that he's often referred to as his old buddy 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 essentially said because I'll be the president, not the vice president. And when it came to health care, you know, he emphasized that his vision would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act. It's a plan that he dubbed Bidencare. President Trump tried to refer to Biden's ideas as socialized medicine and repeatedly cited Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, to which Biden quipped...


BIDEN: He thinks he's running against somebody else. He's running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them. Joe Biden he's running against him.

KHALID: And, Noel, you know, there was another aspect of Biden's record that repeatedly came up through the night. That was his support for a 1990s-era crime bill. Biden acknowledged that in the past, Congress had made some mistakes around drug sentences, but he also defended the Obama administration's record of reversing sentences for thousands of people. And later in the night, Biden really tried to highlight his character, his identity directly to the viewers, telling the audience to compare what they know about him to what they know about President Trump.

KING: All right. Tam, let me ask you - we have nearly 50 million people who have already voted. The president is behind in the polls, and as a result, the understanding was he was looking for some big Biden slip-up to seize on last night. Did he get it?

KEITH: Well, it all depends on your definition of big, but President Trump did seize on one moment when it came to energy. He was looking for Biden to say something that he could use to paint him as too far to the left. And Biden talked about a slow transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels.


TRUMP: Would you close down the oil industry?

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

TRUMP: Oh, that's a big statement...

BIDEN: It is 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 significantly.

TRUMP: Oh, I see.

BIDEN: Here's the deal...

TRUMP: That's a big statement.

BIDEN: Well, if you let me finish the statement - because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I'd stop giving - to the oil industry, I'd stop giving them federal subsidies.

KEITH: And Trump really jumped at that. He was saying, hey, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, did you hear this? Now, the political reality is such that it may not be as much of a blunder as the president thinks it is. A poll from August found a narrow majority of voters in Pennsylvania actually oppose fracking, and Biden is looking for a big turnout from young voters who care about climate change.

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

KEITH: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.