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September 30, 2020

What students can take away from the first presidential debate


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 first presidential debate of 2020 took place on Tuesday, September 29 in Cleveland, OH and featured sharp cross talk and a strategy of aggressive interruption by President Trump and attempts to directly address viewers by former Vice President Biden. Fox News host Chris Wallace struggled to control the flow but managed to ask the candidates about their positions on plans to confront COVID-19, the future of the Supreme Court, economic recovery, race and policing and environmental plans, among other topics.


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?


Joe Biden criticized President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, stating that the president “has no plan,” and he emphasized the need to support businesses with economic relief. Meanwhile, President Trump defended his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, claiming former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joe Biden “could never have done the job that we did,” and citing his decision to restrict some travel from China.

Focus question: What steps do you think should be taken at the national level to help ensure the safety of citizens while maintaining a functional economy?

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?

Climate change and the environment

President Trump defended leaving the Paris Peace Accord (an international commitment to reducing climate change causing greenhouse gases) and promoted his record on reducing carbon emissions. He cast doubt on climate change as a major contributor to increased forest fires in the west and instead blamed forest management. Biden emphasized the need to return to international commitments to control climate change and insisted clean energy initiatives could help stimulate the economy.

Focus question: Do you think there are ways to slow climate change that could also contribute to the economy, or does slowing climate change also mean slowing economic development?

Race and policing

Moderator Chris Wallace asked President Trump why he sought to end “racial sensitivity training” in the Federal government. President Trump responded that the trainings represented a push for a “reversal” of systemic racial advantages. Biden stated that systemic racism does exist and awareness can help lead to national unity. Biden then accused Trump of intentionally stoking racism and violence, while Trump criticized Biden for legislation Biden had supported that led to greater rates of incarceration for African Americans.

Focus question: What federal policies do you think would have the most impact on addressing racism in the United States?

Election integrity

President Trump continued to question the legitimacy of the coming election by casting doubt on the integrity of states’ vote by mail regulations. Biden defended the integrity of mail in voting and pointed out that experts, including the current FBI director (appointed by President Trump), do not support the claim of significant voter or election fraud.

Focus question: Why do you think national elections are managed at the state level? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of having the federal government manage elections?

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.

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