The home stretch of the US presidential election is at hand. As Americans prepare to vote imminently in the presidential elections, the rest of the globe will track the outcome keenly. It has been a campaign without precedent. Two septuagenerians have clashed fiercely during a pandemic. Covid-related anxiety and its consequential economic and social challenges have understandably dominated the airwaves. In framing appeals to the electorate, Trump and Biden have set out contrasting manifestos for an American revival. Both candidates have adopted sharply different positions on domestic and global matters. The electorate has witnessed a campaign that has not only been a clash of personalities but a clash of ideologies too.
These differences were neatly captured in the third and final presidential debate. Given the loutish Trumpian interruptions that marked the first debate, the rules were altered to mute each man’s microphone while the other made an initial statement. The paradoxical effect of this censorship was to aid a more civilised discourse. Attention could mercifully be focused on the strength of each candidate’s respective arguments than their decibel levels.
From Biden’s perspective, there were three key objectives to achieve from the debate. First, he wanted to highlight Trump’s perceived ineptitude in handling Covid. Second, he wanted to underline his credentials as a unifier after years of division and rancour. Third, to underscore that he would be able to protect and advance America’s interests at home and abroad. On each count, Biden pressed his case with earnestness. He excoriated Trump for his handling of a pandemic that has resulted in over 200,000 deaths and a caseload that continues to rise. Far from learning to live with the virus, Biden contended that Americans were ‘learning to die’ from it.
He was at his most impassioned when arguing that he would seek to govern in a bipartisan manner for all Americans. Trump was lambasted for presiding over a culture of divisiveness and ‘blowing a dog-whistle as big as a fog horn’. Biden also sought to make a plea for greater public spending at home and reconciliation with allies aboard. Core Biden supporters would be satisfied that their man got the basic message across in the debate.
Yet Trump fans should not despair either. He put in a measured performance that drew strength from crisp analysis and preparation. Die-hard critics may continue to see him as a clownish maverick but this performance was far from it. We saw Trump mount a spirited defence of his economic record, reminding voters that he oversaw record job-creation till the global pandemic came along. Trump was also forceful in making his case that stifling restrictions would not aid a recovery. His contention remained that a lurch into a shutdown would push millions into destitution. As he put it, ‘the cure cannot be worse than the disease’.
Moreover, Trump continued to press forward his ‘America First’ doctrine where he argued that domestic interests would continue to override multilateral considerations. On foreign policy, Trump went on the front foot by brandishing his assertiveness with China and the fact that during his presidency, there were overtures to North Korea. He adroitly sought to position Biden as the consummate insider who has been in Washington for over four decades.
With an eye for the undecided voters, Trump warned that Biden’s plans for raising taxes would constrain innovation and choke off a recovery. Pointedly, he challenged Biden’s vice-presidential tenure by wondering why little was achieved. When Biden fumbled on his response regarding support for the oil industry, he was swift to reference voters in battleground states and warn about potential job losses. The controversy about Hunter Biden’s alleged dealings in Ukraine and China were invoked to remind voters that Biden carries baggage too.
In the event, both sides will have walked away with reasons to feel satisfied. Trump renewed his appeal to the ‘forgotten majority’, the scores of workers across the rust-belt putting their concerns at the fore in a battle against a smug Washington coterie. He sought to recast the campaign as a choice between a Trump-led recovery and a Biden-led depression. On the other hand, Biden emphasised his vision, which put equality and fairness at the heart of policy considerations. He made a clear pitch as a unifier who wanted to restore civility in community life. On foreign policy, he advocated a multilateral approach which should gladden traditional allies. At a time of uncertainty, Biden was not shy to push for an approach that favoured more governmental intervention.
With a few days to go before the election, there is yet time for a last-minute swerve. Conventional polling has Biden ahead. It would be understandable if an anxious electorate chose Biden for the stability and comfort he offers. But those who are prepared to ignore Trump’s chances do so at their own risk. He has defied mainstream predictions before and is still in the reckoning. What is certain though is that the winner will need to urgently double down on an agenda of transformation and delivery. Anything less will be a disservice to the promise of the American dream.
The writer is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.