Dr. Jason L. Jarvis, Communication Studies Department, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA (USA)
In a less fiery, and more Presidential engagement, Biden was more prepared on policy and more compassionate than Trump. Biden’s call to govern the whole nation, not a country made of Red and Blue states, is a message with the power to resonate with remaining undecided voters.
Overall, this debate reflected a different tone from the participants. Kristen Welker deserves credit for keeping the participants in line and asking tough follow up questions to both candidates. On the whole both Trump and Biden were allowed to finish their thoughts without constant interruption and vitriol. As citizens, we learned more from this exchange than from the first debate.
Stylistically, Trump was notable for his scowl and his penchant for talking by moving his hands in and out in a squeezing motion. The constantly repeated gesture was distracting. This is likely behavior he is unaware of and something that could have been corrected by a public speaking coach in a debate preparation session. That it continued throughout the debate, suggests that Trump either ignored coaching or never got any.
Biden was notable for the change in his energy and voice tone in the 2nd half of the debate. On Child Separation, Immigration, Environmental Justice and Black Lives Matter Biden was animated and indignant. It was as if talking about Dreamers and the plight of middle class America under Trump is something he takes seriously and that he feels passionately about. What stood out during the latter half of the debate was Biden’s tremendous ethos. His emotional display when talking about these issues felt sincere not cynical. However, Biden spent too much time trying to land good one liners. These occasionally landed, but sometimes his sarcasm was hard to follow and he looked overeager.
The real challenge with debating Trump is that he spouts lies and conspiracy theories as though they are facts. For example, on Election interference Trump constantly referenced reports about a secret laptop that have been debunked as Russian disinformation by numerous intelligence officials. Trump also repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that Biden was getting lots of overseas money from Russia and Ukraine and China. On health care, Trump claimed that Biden supported Medicare for All – which is false, Biden supports a public option (unlike many other Democrats). Trump also bragged about his health care policy to replace the ACA. To date, no one has seen this policy and it was never introduced into either house of Congress. Spin and exaggeration are normal tactics in a debate, but the frequency with which blatant lies are treated as fact and/or reported as an “opposing viewpoint” is distressing and counter to the values of democracy.
Trump did quite poorly on COVID and moderator Kristen Welker particularly hurt Trump early in the debate when she asked him about his comments calling medical experts “idiots.” Trump stumbled and failed to provide a good explanation of his policy or what ideas actually guide it, claiming that he has a good relationship with Dr. Fauci and other experts.
Biden was quite persuasive when he returned to a constant refrain: that he would govern the whole country and not see it as divided into “Red and Blue” states. This drew a sharp contrast with Trump who lamented that Pelosi’s bailout plan was just a giveaway to corrupt Democratic cities. Biden really found his voice after Trump quipped that the stock market would crash under a Biden administration. Biden was indignant that many Americans don’t live on a budget that is measured by stock gains.
Discussions of racial politics in America were bizarre. Biden took a strong stand on the child separation policy that has now left 545 kids without parents noting that Trump and Jeff Sessions functionally made kids orphans as a matter of punitive American policy. Trump also claimed that he had done more for Black Americans than anyone since Abraham Lincoln, repeatedly pointing to his criminal justice reform efforts and support for HBCUs. On this issue, Biden landed his best one liner of the night, effectively summarizing Trump’s position on race when he retorted that Trump has a “dog whistle as big as a fog horn.” Trump didn’t ask the Proud Boys to “stand by” in this debate, but very few people outside his base believe that he has done anything to improve the racial divisions in America.
The debate concluded with discussions about climate change and fossil fuels. Trump’s rant about windmills and birds just sounded wacky. I still don’t know why he hates windmills, and I don’t think a longer discussion of the issue would clarify things. Biden also stumbled here, seeming to forget he ever called to ban fracking, before quietly conceding he did want to ban it on public lands. In contrast, Biden (unlike Trump) sounded sharp on the question about “fence line” communities and was clear about his desire to end subsidies to oil and fossil fuel companies. While environmentalists were undoubtedly thrilled, Trump appeared to think that this was a major concession. It would not be surprising to see Trump go back to the issue of fossil fuels/oil as the campaign concludes over the next two weeks.