Final US Presidential Debates: Five Key Highlights

With less than two weeks left until the elections, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off for the final time on 22 October.

Interview Updated 28 October 2020 Published 23 October 2020 4 minute READ

Experts across Chatham House shared their views on Trump and Biden’s performance and their key takeaways from the last debate. More than 47 million Americans have already cast their vote and few voters are undecided, but the debates still provide a good lens into these two very different candidates.

Throughout the presidential race, there have been concerns regarding foreign interference in the election. How did candidates respond to this threat?

Leslie Vinjamuri: The candidates deflected the question, but it could not have been more timely. Only two days ago, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, and Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, announced that Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data and used this to send threatening emails to voters.

The history of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the last US presidential elections is well documented and the security and integrity of the voting process is top of many Americans’ minds. President Trump himself has failed to confirm that he will accept the outcome of the election and continued to repeat allegations that mail-in-ballots are fraudulent.

Moderator Kristin Welker opened the debate session on national security by referencing new evidence that Iran, alongside Russia and China, had interfered in the US election. Both Trump and Biden focused their responses on the negative actions committed by Russia and China. Is the lack of attention paid to Iran indicative of a shift in the US public attitude in terms of perceiving the two powers as a greater threat and what could this mean for the future of US policy towards Iran?

Sanam Vakil: The lack of reference to the Middle East and the scant details of how either candidate will address regional challenges stemming from Iran, the war in Yemen or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not suggest the region is no longer important for the US, but rather that geopolitical threats from Russia and China are the biggest national security challenges for the United States.

The candidates’ responses reflect the larger focus and pivot of US foreign policy towards managing geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. As part of this shift, Biden and Trump will continue to pivot away from the Middle East and redirect American resources to challenges in Asia. Trump and Biden differ tactically though in their global engagement and these differences will impact the tone, scope and scale of US policy engagement towards many Middle Eastern states.

Should Biden win, the American tone and policy toolkit will differ from the independent ‘America first’ transactionalism of the Trump administration. As a first step, the Biden team will rebuild the transatlantic alliance that has frayed over the administration’s sanctions-based maximum pressure strategy and the 2018 US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Taking a multilateral approach, the Biden team will also resurrect the values of human rights that have been lost in regional political discourse. It is expected that greater multilateral attention will also be given to address the American and Iranian compliance in the nuclear agreement. From there, regional security challenges and solving the ongoing wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria will be tackled. A Trump presidency would reduce and retrench America’s physical presence and in turn empower regional partners like Israel and the UAE to manage regional challenges.

During the final debate, Biden claimed Trump embraces ‘thugs’ in countries like China, Russia and North Korea. How has Trump managed relations with foreign adversaries during his four years in office and is he likely to continue on the same path if re-elected? What could we expect from a Biden administration when it comes to combatting authoritarian influences?

Leslie Vinjamuri: In the debate, Trump claimed that he inherited a bad situation in North Korea. This is true. Democratic and Republican presidents have been trying for several decades to get North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons programme.

But President Trump has mistaken having a good personal relationship with autocratic leaders with achieving key foreign policy objectives. In North Korea, Russia, and China, the president’s attempts to court individual leaders on a personal level have failed to deliver concrete foreign policy successes.

The US relationship with Russia has continued to deteriorate and its confrontation with China has accelerated. And despite the president’s summit with Kim Jong-un, North Korea has increased its nuclear arsenal. It has done this despite achieving its long-sought goal of direct talks with the US president and even a photo opportunity.

President Trump also turned a blind eye to the well-documented reports of North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses. By calling out Trump for meeting with ‘thugs’, Biden signalled that human rights and democracy will play a prominent role in a Biden presidency.

The next administration will need a well-considered strategy for integrating human rights into its diplomacy in a way that advances rather than impedes its foreign policy objectives. And since foreign policy begins at home, its efforts to restore democracy and rights must also begin there.

The mass protests following the killing of George Floyd has brought the issue of systemic racism to the forefront of the presidential race. What did the debate tell us about what we can expect from a potential Trump or Biden administration regarding addressing police abuse and increasing opportunities for black Americans?

Anar Bata and Christopher Sabatini:
Trump focused on his administration’s record, highlighting his criminal justice and prison reforms, the funding of historically black universities and the country’s economic growth under his administration.

Biden spoke of the need for more economic opportunity, better healthcare and improved access to education. But neither candidate outlined a strategy for tackling institutional racism within the US or fully acknowledged the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement and how to address police abuse.

While the president refrained from his usual attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement, he raised his doubt about the movement from his first interaction with protestors who were making derogatory comments about police during a march. Biden acknowledged that his involvement with the passage of the 1986 crime bill was a mistake but pointed out that the bill received the support of all 100 senators, Democrat and Republican, and that his thinking and the national mood have evolved since.

The former vice president also emphasized his plans of reforming laws to support drug rehabilitation programmes rather than incarceration for ‘drug-only offences’.

Towards the end of the debate, Biden announced he would make the transition from oil to renewable energy over time, with Trump responding that Biden would ‘destroy the oil industry’. How do Trump and Biden’s approach to climate change differ?

Tim Benton and Sam Geall: In a year where disruptions from climate hazards – increased hurricane frequency and wildfires of unprecedented size and ferocity – again provides obvious evidence of climate change’s economic and social impacts, tackling climate change has entered the political mainstream front-and centre.

Last night’s debate illustrated the stark difference between the two candidates. Biden’s admission at the debate that he supports the transition from oil to renewables may draw scrutiny from Trump’s supporters, but it reflects a changing reality. It was a bold statement just days before an election that, in one scenario, could come down to one state, Pennsylvania, that has been hit especially hard by this year’s oil price crash.

Biden acknowledged the ‘existential threat’ that climate would cause, and, as importantly, the economic opportunities that would occur towards a transition to a green economy. Renewable energy is becoming the cheapest form of energy to invest in, and there is a new economy based on renewable energy, employing over 11 million people worldwide.

Increasingly, there are also jobs to be had in cleaner technology – such as electric vehicles. Still, the bulk of state support in the US continues to go for fossil fuels. Federal support for EVs lags behind other countries such as China, even though Tesla illustrates the obvious potential for success.

Biden plans a $2 trillion package to drive a transition to a greener economy, including a clear commitment to phase out subsidies for oil. This is in contrast to Trump, who has invested heavily in the fossil fuel economy. Trump, who has famously withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement, indicated that he did not want to ‘sacrifice’ existing jobs or companies in the industry. This is despite evidence that we may already have hit ‘peak oil’ and the future for the industry is bleak anyway, and despite the new economy that beckons.

What the debate illustrated starkly is the contrasting visions. Biden looking ahead, acknowledging that tackling climate change can be good for society, reducing risks that often hit the poor and marginalized the hardest, and providing economic opportunities. In contrast, incumbent Trump, is favouring incumbent industries and their incumbent power, wanting to prolong ‘business as usual’ in a year where, above all, nothing is ‘as usual’.