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U.S. Presidential Candidates Talk COVID, Climate Change, Economy in First Debate

Between interruptions and heated discussion, candidates Democrat Joe Biden and incumbent Republican President Donald J. Trump previewed their platforms during the first presidential debate.

While Tuesday, Sept. 29 was a calm, fall day in Cleveland, Ohio, the roar of military aircraft over the city was an indication of the impending event which was held later that evening.

In 2016, the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton drew 84 million viewers. Early estimates show the event might have topped that number. While a widely-circulated poll of Telemundo’s Spanish-speaking viewers indicated they thought President Donald Trump triumphed over Joe Biden in a 66-34 percent margin, political analysts and other experts did not indicate such a cut-and-dry landslide for either candidate.

This year’s national elections are slated to be among the most contested as the ongoing pandemic continues to impact nearly every part of American life. Among the most heated discussions was about the U.S. government’s measures, or alleged lack thereof, to protect American citizens from the novel coronavirus.

On COVID-19….

Masks are perhaps one of the challenged methods of protection from novel coronavirus. Fabric and surgical face masks are typically not considered effective personal protective equipment (PPE) because they do not protect the wearer. In contrast, N95 filtering facepiece respirators, which per OSHA require a written respiratory program in the workplace to ensure proper fit and function, have been in short supply for essential, frontline workers since the pandemic began.

A presidential memorandum issued April 3 stated, "Due to the impact on workplace conditions caused by limited supplies of N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), all employers should reassess their engineering controls, work practices, and administrative controls to identify any changes they can make to decrease the need for N95 respirators.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advocated requiring face mask use to offer some level of protection to American citizens in grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses, opponents have questioned President Trump’s support of such measures.

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked, “President Trump, you have begun to increasingly question the effectiveness of masks as a disease preventer. And in fact, recently you have cited the issue of waiters touching their masks and touching plates. Are you questioning the efficacy of masks?”

“No, I think masks are okay,” Trump responded. “You have to understand, if you look… I mean, I have a mask right here. I put a mask on when I think I need it. Tonight, as an example, everybody’s had a test and you’ve had social distancing and all of the things that you have to, but I wear masks … when needed. When needed, I wear masks.”

Biden contested, “Well, masks make a big difference. His own head of the CDC said if we just wore masks between now, if everybody wore a mask and social distanced between now and January, we’d probably save up to 100,000 lives. It matters. It matters.”

On getting a COVID-19 vaccine by summer 2021, President Donald Trump admitted he disagreed with top scientists about when a rollout will happen. He told viewers there will be an answer before Nov. 1, saying "it's a political thing," on the timing of the vaccine's release.

The U.S. President later questioned Biden’s intelligence, saying that in his 47 years in politics Biden has “done nothing.”

Biden continued to oppose Trump’s actions throughout the pandemic, saying, “We didn’t shut down the economy. This is his economy he shut down. The reason it’s shut down is because, look, you folks at home. How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID? How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them; you had a nurse holding a phone up so you could in fact say goodbye?”

The Democratic candidate previously indicated in an interview with ABC News that he would initiate another economic shutdown if scientists advised it. He also said he would be “prepared to do whatever it takes,” to ensure the health and safety of the American people.

“Let me just tell you something, Joe,” Trump said. “If you would have had the charge of what I was put through, I had to close the greatest economy of the history of our country. And by the way, now it’s being built again and it’s going up fast.”

On the Economy…

Economic uncertainty continues to be the main topic of conversation at American households and gatherings while the world waits for answers.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization founded to foster economic cooperation and reduce poverty, called the coronavirus shutdowns the “worst economic crisis since 1930s depression.”

While recovery is on the horizon, the rate and method at which the United States takes to get there is dependent on the outcome of the November 3 national election.

Wallace asked the candidates, “the unemployment rate fell to 8.4% last month. The Federal Reserve says the hit to growth, which is going to be there, is not going to be nearly as big as they had expected. President Trump, you say we are in a V-shaped recovery. Vice President Biden, you say it’s more of a K-shape. What difference does that mean to the American people in terms of the economy?”

Trump spoke first, specifically referencing the 10.4 million jobs recovered over the four months following the pandemic shutdowns. He credited his administration with building “the greatest economy in history” before closing it down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“When the plague came in, we closed it down, which was very hard psychologically to do,” Trump said.” But what happened is we closed it down and now we’re reopening and we’re doing record business. We had 10.4 million people in a four-month period that we’ve put back into the workforce. That’s a record the likes of which nobody’s ever seen before.”

Trump finished his response, restating Biden’s stance on a later shutdown if scientists recommend it, saying, “he will shut it down again. He will destroy this country.”

Biden focused on wealth and income inequality, immediately pointing out the recent The New York Times investigation into the president’s tax returns.

“The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well,” he began. “Billionaires have made another $300 billion because of his profligate tax proposal, and he only focused on the market. But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working-class towns in America, how well are you doing? This guy paid a total of $750 in taxes.”

Following his remarks, Biden again took aim at the Trump administration’s actions during the pandemic, speaking this time on education. He said the cost of reopening American schools for in-person instruction is high, but safety should remain at the forefront of any decisions.

“They were going to give, his administration going to give the teachers and school students masks, and then they decided no, couldn’t do that because it’s not a national emergency,” Biden said. “Not a national emergency. They’ve done nothing to help small businesses. Nothing. They’re closing. One in six is now gone. He ought to get on the job and take care of the needs of the American people so we can open safely.”

President Trump responded to Biden’s comments, " No, people want their schools open. They don’t want to be shut down. They don’t want their state shut down. They want their restaurants. I look at New York. It’s so sad what’s happening in New York. It’s almost like a ghost town, and I’m not sure it can ever recover what they’ve done to New York. People want their places open. They want to get back to their lives.”

Wallace inquired about the candidates’ economic plans. He summarized Democratic candidate Biden’s platform of “big government, big taxes, big spending.” Biden’s plan proposes more than $4 trillion over a decade in new taxes on individuals making more than $400,000 a year and an increase on corporate taxes.

Biden explained that his economic initiative would create 7 million more jobs than measures taken during Trump’s presidential tenure. He then said his plans would create “an additional $1 trillion in economic growth, because it would be about buying American.”

Tax reduction was also on the plate. Biden finished by saying, “By the way, I’m going to eliminate a significant number of the taxes. I’m going to make the corporate tax 28%. It shouldn’t be 21%. You have 91 companies federal, I mean, the fortune 500, who don’t pay a single penny in tax making billions of dollars.”

President Trump then questioned why these plans didn’t come to fruition during Obama’s administration when Biden served as vice president saying that under his regime, “our economy boomed like it’s never boomed before.”

Moderator Wallace then asked, “you would continue your free-market approach, lower taxes, more deregulation, correct?” Following bantering back and forth between candidates, Trump touted the manufacturing job boom generated over his presidency.

On Climate Change….

The final topic of the debate was climate change. More than 18,700 firefighters are fighting 27 “major” wildfires throughout California. Fires have consumed more than 3.2 million acres in California in 2020, exacerbated by ongoing drought conditions. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced as a result, air quality is in question and experts are estimating damage upwards of $20 billion to date. The gravity and size of the fires and their damage have been attributed to climate change.

“Since the beginning of the year, there have been over 8,100 wildfires that have burned well over 3.8 million acres in California,” the CAL FIRE update on the night of the debate stated.

Moderator Chris Wallace asked President Trump, “Over your four years, you have pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama Environmental records, what do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”

Trump began by saying, “I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon… If you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally. But I haven’t destroyed our businesses. Our businesses aren’t put out of commission.”

He referred to the Paris Accord as “a disaster from our standpoint” and said that businesses are, in fact, prospering with the rollback of environmental regulations.

When it comes to the forest fires, Trump recommended better forest management to clear brush and prevent the spread of blazes.

“In addition to everything else, the forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like tinder and leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management,” he said.

Wallace then inquired about Trump’s stance on the science of climate change asking if the President “believes that human pollution, gas, greenhouse gas emissions contributes to the global warming of this planet.”

“I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes,” Trump said, before expounding on his previous point about forest management.

Based on his assertion about the science of climate change, Wallace then questioned the President about the rollback of Obama’s Clean Power Plant that limited carbon emissions and power plants.

Trump answered, “because it was driving energy prices through the sky.”

Biden then jumped in, asking why the Trump administration also reduced fuel economy standards that “are going to create more pollution from cars and trucks.”

“Well, not really because what’s happening is the car is much less expensive and it’s a much safer car and you talk about a tiny difference,” Trump said. “And then what would happen because of the cost of the car you would have at least double and triple the number of cars purchased. We have the old slugs out there that are 10, 12 years old. If you did that, the car would be safer. It would be much cheaper by $3,500.”

The climate debate concluded with discussion about clean energy and reducing greenhouse emissions. Wallace first requested Biden’s stance on green jobs saying, “you propose $2 trillion in green jobs. You talk about new limits, not abolishing, but new limits on fracking. Ending the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2035 and zero to no admission of greenhouse gases by 2050. The president says a lot of these things would tank the economy and cost millions of jobs.”

The former vice president told Wallace that Trump is “absolutely wrong” and speaking about the Obama’s administration progress.

“In fact, during our administration in the recovery act, I was in charge able to bring down the cost of renewable energy to cheaper….as cheap as coal and gas and oil. Nobody’s going to build another coal-fired plant in America. No one’s going to build another oil fire plant in America,” Biden proclaimed. “They’re going to move to renewable energy. Number one, number two, we’re going to make sure that we are able to take the federal fleet and turn it into a fleet that’s run on their electric vehicles. Making sure that we can do that, we’re going to put 500,000 charging stations in all of the highways that we’re going to be building in the future. We’re going to build an economy that in fact is going to provide for the ability of us to take 4 million buildings and make sure that they in fact are weatherized in a way that will they’ll emit significantly less gas and oil because the heat will not be going out. There’s so many things that we can do…”

Biden said the first thing he would do as president is to rejoin the Paris Agreement and rebuild foreign relations.

“I will join the Paris Accord because with us out of it, look what’s happening. It’s all falling apart. And talk about someone who has no relationship with foreign policy,” he said. “The rainforests of Brazil are being torn down, are being ripped down. More carbon is absorbed in that rainforest than every bit of carbon that’s emitted in the United States. Instead of doing something about that, I would be gathering up and making sure we had the countries of the world coming up with $20 billion, and say, ‘Here’s $20 billion. Stop tearing down the forest. And If you don’t, then you’re going to have significant economic consequences.’”

Wallace finished by referencing President Trump’s assertion that there needs to be a balance between environmental interests and economic interests.

“I actually have studied your plan, and it includes upgrading four million buildings, weatherizing two million homes over four years, building one and a half million energy-efficient homes,” Wallace said. “So, the question becomes, the president is saying, and I think some people who support the president would say, that sounds like it’s going to cost a lot of money and hurt the economy.”

This is not the case, Biden said. He assured his platform is a way to “create thousands and millions of jobs. Good paying jobs.”

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