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October 23, 2020

What students can take away from the final presidential debate

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Directions: First, watch the video above for a primer on expectations for each candidate before the debate. Then read the summary and select clips from the actual debate below to view. Questions for students follow each series of video clips. If you would like to read a transcript of the debate preview, click here. You can also watch the entire debate here. For a fact check of the debate, click here.

Summary: The second and final presidential debate of 2020 took place on Thursday, October 22 in Nashville, Tenn. The final debate took on a slightly different format than the first, with each candidate given two minutes to respond to questions with their opponent’s microphone muted. The result was clearer answers and less confusing cross-talk from the candidates. The debate covered COVID-19 plans, the economy, foreign policy and corruption, race in America and leadership, among other topics.

Discussion:

Warm up questions: 

  • Who are the two candidates and what are their political backgrounds?
  • What topics did the debate planners try to cover?
  • When and where did the debate take place?
  • Why are presidential debates important?
  • How did the candidates attempt to connect with their supporters, independents and potential new voters?

Coronavirus

Biden criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that “anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.” Biden emphasized realism, a flexible response to COVID-19 rates and the need for funding for businesses and schools to safely open. Trump defended his record and suggested that measures to limit COVID spread were worse than the virus itself.

Focus question: Do you think it’s more important for a president to project optimism to the public about COVID-19 or a realistic assessment of its dangers?

Taxes and the economy

President Trump defended his own record as a taxpayer, challenging a New York Times report that he only paid $750 in federal taxes the year he took office and defending a bill passed early in his administration that slashed taxes for the wealthy and corporations. Biden promised to raise taxes again for the wealthy and insisted that the economy won’t fully recover until COVID-19 is fully controlled.

Focus question: Do you think our current tax system is fair? Should wealthy Americans pay proportionally more than middle or lower income Americans?

Health care and the economy

Trump touted Congress’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which took effect in 2019 and no longer required uninsured people above a certain level of income to either purchase insurance or pay a penalty. Trump also emphasized his desire to “terminate” the Affordable Care Act — also called Obamacare — while still covering preexisting conditions. But the president and his Republican colleagues have failed to present a specific plan that would replace the ACA without leaving the millions of Americans who currently rely on the program, including those with preexisting conditions like diabetes, cancer or pregnancy, without health insurance. Meanwhile, Biden called health care a “right” and promoted a plan to expand health care to more Americans who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

 

Focus question: What are the tradeoffs, or pros and cons, of the federal government paying for health care for Americans without private insurance?

Environmental regulations

Trump defended his decision to remove the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which he characterized as “unfair” and claimed it would have “destroyed” American businesses. The agreement was designed according to each involved nation’s individual wealth and development status in addition to its specific role in contributing to total global emissions. While Trump touted his administration’s air and water quality benchmarks, he downplayed the threat of climate change as an important consideration of regulatory policy. Biden argued that the United States needed to lead on clean energy and in fighting climate change, and he made the case that investing in cleaner tech would be good for the economy and environment.

Focus question: Do you think federal spending and regulation to address climate change will help or hurt the economy and employment?

Presidential leadership

The debate ended with a question about how each candidate would seek to unite the country after inauguration day in January. Trump argued that a successful economy would erase political divides. Biden claimed that he would be a president to all Americans, whether they voted for him or not, and that better character in the White House would make a difference.

Focus question: Do you think the character or personal behavior of a president matters, or is it not as important as policy ideas?

Dig deeper: To help contextualize this debate in the history of presidential debates, you can choose clips from this NewsHour archive of past presidential debates, or use this lesson to explore presidential debate strategy and history. You can also use some or all of this series of mini-lessons on presidential debates.


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