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Biden and Trump go head to head tonight. What are the stakes?


It's debate day. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump face off tonight for the first time this election season. With less than five months until Election Day, the candidates are nearly tied in the polls. But even with such a close race, there's been a lack of enthusiasm for either of them among voters. We talked with Republican strategist Doug Heye and Democratic strategist Faiz Shakir. And I started off by asking Shakir if he thought the debate performance might reenergize voters.

FAIZ SHAKIR: I certainly think there is an opportunity to energize people in the negative, in terms of understanding why your opponent is someone who shouldn't be the next president of the United States, and particularly in terms of Trump from Biden's perspective, to remind people of his record the things that they abhorred about him - his character in office, the chaos, gassing of protesters, rubber bullets, all kind of things like that - that are easily forgotten over time. So that's certainly one thing you can do in a debate. The challenge for him was obviously to also tell a positive narrative story of what you want to accomplish in the next four years without getting bogged down too much and relitigating what has happened over the course of his presidency, because ultimately, presidential elections are about the future.

DOUG HEYE: Nobody expects the debate to be a positive happy experience. And part of that is just the direction of the country and where voters feel the country is moving. The other part is what we've seen in recent history. So we see this 25% of voters that say that they're not happy with either of these choices who may be the deciders, especially in swing states. They're saying very loudly, I don't want to see this movie again. And so Donald Trump and Joe Biden are essentially going to try and say, yeah, this is the part of the movie that you don't want to see again. And what we know with Trump is that's not about policy per se. Donald Trump likes to throw sand in his opponent's eyes, and he does that very effectively. And that's where we're going to have to see 'cause we do not know what direction does Trump use that in.

SUMMERS: I want to get into some of the big issues that seem to be motivating voters' opinions this cycle. And top of mind, for me at least, are inflation, immigration and abortion. I want to start with that last one, abortion, because it's been such a huge rallying point for Democrats, who have really tried to make Trump own the overturning of Roe v. Wade, abortion bans in states across the country. We've heard President Biden argue that Trump is actually taking this country backwards when it comes to equality for women.

Doug, I want to put this one to you. How do you think former President Trump can effectively rebut those concerns, if he can?

HEYE: Well, he's trying to right now. He talks about, you know, I basically put the judges in place to overturn Roe, but now this should be decided by the states on a state-by-state basis, and that's what Republicans always believed in. Essentially, Donald Trump is trying to use nuance in this debate. And Donald Trump isn't somebody who does nuance very often, which means it's going to be difficult for him to pull off. And for Biden, this is the only issue where he's on offense. If you look at polling on issues - you know, forget the national polls of who's up a point or two on any given week - if you draw down on issues, other than abortion, Biden is underwater on everything - on crime, on inflation, on the border, on health care, on education. This is Biden's only place to be on offense, and I expect that he'll do that often and, you know, as well as he can.

SUMMERS: I want to move to another topic, and that's the issue of immigration, which former President Trump has really made a key focus of his campaign, really, since his political rise began back in 2016. In recent days, we have heard him blame President Biden for a surge in illegal border crossings. He has argued that Biden's policies are too lax and that Biden's approach has fueled violent crime. And I will just note here that immigrants do not commit crime at higher rates than U.S. citizens. Multiple credible studies have said that.

Faiz, to you, how do you think President Biden on the debate stage might seek to use this issue, which many see as a liability for him, to his advantage?

SHAKIR: Yeah. I also tend to think that immigration is not being considered appropriately by a lot of people on the left, who see it largely in the crime lens, because I think it's also bled over pretty deeply into an economic issue. Generally, people are concerned and seeing cities that undoubtedly have become more difficult to manage. So I think what often ends up being missed in the immigration debate is it brings a lot of different threads together for people's lives, and to think about it simply in the terms of crime would be not meeting, I think, voters where they're at.

SUMMERS: I want to talk more about the economy because one of President Biden's big hurdles seems to be that there's this really big disconnect around the economy. The economy is improving, but many people - and I talked to a lot of these voters when I'm out on the campaign trail - they perceive that the economy is still doing quite badly. How do you think that President Biden can make this issue a winning one for him, given that as the person in the White House, his administration is being held responsible for the state of the economy and the way that people perceive it?

HEYE: Biden does in response is what we've seen a lot of - a litany of, I passed this bill and that bill, and I have a great legislative track record. The American people do not care about Joe Biden's legislative track record. They care about going to the grocery store and what it costs. He has to understand that voters are feeling pain right now, and if he can't demonstrate and empathize on that issue and just goes through a litany of his accomplishments, he loses them.

SHAKIR: To add on to what Doug is saying, I would say, what is the story I want to tell Americans about this economy? That's the challenge for Joe Biden. And what I would proffer is that where he's fighting Donald Trump on political authoritarianism - we don't want authoritarians in charge of our political system who write the rules and discount the votes of regular people - that's also what I'm fighting for on the economy. I want economic democracy, which means that people have power, not authoritarians of our economy. That's why I fight for workplace democracy, which is I go on the picket lines and I stand with workers. I fight for noncompete bans so that workers are free to move and demand better wages. That's a story, right? That's bonding all of this together so that people understand all of these scatter plot points that you've given me.

SUMMERS: Last thing to both of you, can either of you envision a scenario in which what happens at this first debate in Atlanta can fundamentally change the outcome of the election in November?

SHAKIR: I think so much of what Joe Biden has been caricatured at this point has been based off of clips and the morality of various things here, and people haven't really, quite frankly, had an opportunity to see him. Outside of State of the Union, there aren't many big moments. Donald Trump is more ever-present, as he often is, in people's feeds and inboxes and TV sets, whereas - you know, he's been on trial and such. We've seen Donald Trump. We haven't seen Joe Biden. And this is one of the few times where he'll have a command of a large national audience to say, I can both show you in style and effect who I am, remind you of what you liked about me. When I was talking about restoring the soul of America, it wasn't just a policy agenda. It was also just the decency and the compassion, the character that he brings to office.

I do think that's why I operate with positivity and optimism as a Democrat who supports Biden about this election, because at the end of the day, as long as he hits his benchmarks of reminding people who he is and what he is, then we're fine. People are going to be there. But if somehow people start to believe that he's different than what he was four years ago; he's different than what I thought of him for the past 40 years in public service, then that's a concern.

HEYE: Another reason why this debate is really important is not that it's the first one, but it is potentially the only one. Yes, there's supposed to be an ABC debate later this year. But we don't really know that that's going to happen. Either one of these two could decide, I'm not doing this again, for very legitimate reasons, so this may be the only look that voters have.

SUMMERS: That was former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye and Faiz Shakir, chief political advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.V. HAMILTON AND HIJNX SONG, "DOWN!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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