By Orion Donovan-Smith
The 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is as divisive a presidential race as the United States has seen in modern history. Polls indicate few voters remain undecided, with the winner likely to be decided by the outcomes in a handful of swing states.
Beneath the bluster and campaign rhetoric, the two candidates offer dramatically different visions for America. Biden has framed the contest as a “battle for the soul of the nation” and vowed to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic, while Trump’s campaign has doubled down on its 2016 slogan with a promise, as Vice President Mike Pence has said, to “make American great again, again.”
Here’s where they stand on the issues.
THE U.S. ECONOMY AND TAXES
Trump made cutting taxes to boost the economy a big part of his 2016 platform and made good on that promise when he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act at the end of 2017. His signature legislative accomplishment made temporary cuts to individual taxes and the estate tax, most of which expire after 2025, and permanently slashed corporate tax rates.
Trump administration officials predicted the bill would spur enough economic growth to pay for itself or even cut the federal deficit by $1 trillion after a decade, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2017, but a 2019 analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the legislation was on track to increase the deficit by $1.9 trillion. The U.S. economy grew at an annual average rate of 2.5% in Trump’s first three years in office, up slightly from the 2.3% growth rate in President Obama’s last three years in office.
With the U.S. now facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression due to the pandemic, Trump’s 2020 platform promises to cut taxes further, continue to reduce regulations and create 10 million new jobs in 10 months. The platform is thin on details and Trump has not said how those jobs would be created. The nation lost 22 million jobs to pandemic-related shutdowns in spring and the White House has characterized laid-off Americans returning to work as “new” jobs.
Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic plan is closely tied to his road map for recovery from COVID-19, promising to create a “Public Health Jobs Corps” to put people to work to fight the pandemic. He has also proposed a 10% tax credit to reward U.S.-based manufacturing and a 10% tax penalty for companies that take jobs out of the country.
The former vice president says he would roll back Trump-era tax cuts for corporations and individuals who make more than $400,000 a year, using some of that revenue to fund infrastructure and social programs.
The Trump administration has been focused on repealing the Affordable Care Act, dubbed “Obamacare,” something Republicans in Congress came close to doing when they controlled both the House and Senate in Trump’s first year in office. They failed, but succeeded in reducing the penalty for not having health insurance – known as the “individual mandate” – to zero dollars.
That change paved the way for a legal challenge to the ACA the Supreme Court will consider just days after the election, the third time a White House-backed lawsuit to overturn the law has reached the high court. The president has struggled to define a plan to replace Obamacare. In the Sept. 29 presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump repeatedly, “What is the Trump health care plan?” He eventually replied, “We took away the individual mandate.”
Trump’s platform promises to cut prescription drug prices, a major focus since he took office. The administration in 2019 required pharmaceutical companies to disclose drug prices in TV commercials. The White House was reportedly close to a deal with drug companies to lower prices, but the talks fell apart in September after the administration insisted the industry pay for $100 cash cards to be sent to seniors ahead of the election.
The former vice president has promised to protect and build on Obamacare, ignoring proposals from the progressive wing of his party to create a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system. Instead, Biden wants to give Americans the chance to buy into a government-run insurance plan – a “public option” – similar to Medicare.
He also promises to increase tax credits to offset health insurance costs, simplify the health care system and make the “public option” available to low-income residents of states that have opted not to expand Medicaid coverage as allowed under the ACA. Both Washington and Idaho have expanded Medicaid.
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
In the months before the president himself became one of the more than seven million Americans who have been infected with the coronavirus, he repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease and shunned the social distancing and mask wearing his own public health experts have recommended. At a Sept. 21 campaign rally in Ohio, Trump said the virus “affects virtually nobody.”
The White House touts Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China at the end of January as part of his “historic coronavirus response.” That move drew criticism from some Democrats as xenophobic – in part because Trump has referred to the illness as “the China virus” and “kung flu” – but his public health officials have said the restrictions likely slowed the spread of the virus and saved lives.
While flouting bans on large gatherings and mocking Biden for wearing a mask, Trump’s plan for controlling the virus depends on the historically speedy development and approval of a vaccine. While four vaccines are now in phase-three clinical trials and could be approved by the end of the year, health officials say, Trump has said a vaccine could be ready before the election. Health officials have emphasized that even in a best-case scenario, a vaccine won’t be available for all Americans until mid-2021.
In contrast to Trump, Biden has pointedly worn a mask in public and avoided large gatherings this campaign season, campaigning largely from his home in Delaware. He has called Trump contracting the disease a “bracing reminder to all of us that we have to take this virus seriously.”
While the Trump administration has opted to leave much of the nation’s COVID-19 response to the individual states, resulting in a patchwork of policies, the Biden campaign’s plan calls for the federal government taking on a more central role, including in scaling up testing and contact tracing. He would also create a task force dedicated to addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the pandemic’s impact.
A seven-point plan on Biden’s website spells out how a Biden-Harris administration would hit the ground running in January 2020, invoking the Defense Production Act to increase the domestic production of personal protective equipment, create a national “dashboard” to view real-time data on local virus transmission, and restore a White House global health office that was established by Obama and eliminated by Trump in 2018.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY
Well before kicking off his first presidential campaign in 2015, the president questioned humans’ role in climate change and even whether it was happening at all. Starting with a 2013 tweet, he has repeatedly called it a “hoax.” He has continued his climate change denial during his presidency, telling an official who cited the scientific consensus on human contributions to climate change during a September visit to wildfire-ravaged California, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
In his first major campaign speech on energy policy in 2016, then-candidate Trump said he would “cancel” the Paris climate accord, an international agreement signed in 2016 to reduce global carbon emissions and slow climate change. He made good on that promise by beginning the process of withdrawing from the deal in June 2017 – although the withdrawal can’t become official until just after the Nov. 3 election – citing “onerous energy restrictions.” If the U.S. completes its withdrawal from the agreement, it would join Iraq, Libya, Iran, Turkey, Eritrea, South Sudan and Yemen as the only non-ratifying countries.
The president has promoted oil, gas and coal production, including expanding extraction operations on public lands and in offshore drilling operations. The U.S. surpassed Saudi Arabia in 2018 to become the world’s largest oil producer, after passing Russia as the biggest global natural gas producer in 2011.
The former vice president has said he would rejoin the Paris climate deal, which he helped craft during the Obama administration. His platform includes New Deal-style $2 trillion plan to invest in renewable energy, infrastructure, auto manufacturing, transit, climate-resilient agriculture and green buildings. That massive effort, the campaign says, would create “millions” of jobs and modernize roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure.
Biden’s plan aims to make the U.S. energy sector pollution free by 2035 and set the country on course for a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. He has called climate change an “existential threat” not only to the environment but to America’s economy and national security.
President Trump has not made education a prominent priority in his first term, mostly letting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos work quietly on her reform priorities. His official 2020 campaign platform includes just two concise bullet points under the education heading: “Provide school choice to every child in America” and “teach American exceptionalism.”
“School choice” refers to efforts to let families use taxpayer money for private school tuition, an option many parents like but one that can drain resources away from public schools. The second bullet point refers to a “patriotic education” commission Trump announced in September, apparently in response to efforts to teach American history that accounts for systemic racism and the lingering societal effects of slavery and other past injustices. Trump has called teaching these subjects “a form of child abuse.”
In recent months, the Trump administration has pushed for schools to reopen despite concerns about coronavirus transmission, citing other risks and economic harm due to parents staying home to care for children. “We cannot indefinitely stop 50 million American children from going to school and harming their mental, physical, emotional, and academic development and inflicting long-term, lasting damage,” Trump said Aug. 12.
When some of his Democratic primary opponents promised to cancel student loan debt, Biden took a more careful stance. At the K-12 level, his education plan would boost pay and invest in continuing education and mentoring for teachers, as well as fixing an existing program meant to help teachers and other public servants pay off their own student loans. He also pledges to double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses and other school health workers.
Biden also says he would follow through on an Obama-era plan to make two years of community college or technical education free. His plan would also make tuition at public universities free for families who make less than $125,000 a year and increase grant funding for middle-class students. Biden has stopped short of the loan forgiveness plans some in his party have called for, but he would simplify student loan repayment plans and cap loan repayments at 5% of discretionary income over $25,000, while those earning less than $25,000 would make no payments.
LAW ENFORCEMENT AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
In the months ahead of the election, especially during a summer of protests sparked by police killings of Black Americans, Trump has campaigned on a tough-on-crime message. He has condemned “dangerous anti-police rhetoric” and repeatedly tweeted “LAW & ORDER!”
At the same time, Trump has touted the passage of the First Step Act on his watch, a criminal justice reform bill he signed in December 2018 after a lobbying visit from reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. That legislation, which was in the works for years before the stars aligned to make its passage in Congress possible, reduced sentences for certain crimes at federal prisons, which account for nearly 10% of the total U.S. prison population.
While Trump has sought to associate Biden with the campaign to “defund the police,” the former vice president has taken pains to make clear that he does not support cutting police funding. Instead, his criminal justice plan promises to invest an additional $300 million in a community policing program to hire more officers and train them to de-escalate conflict. It also would increase funding for social workers and mental health and drug abuse experts to work alongside police.
Biden has also come under fire for his role in passing a sweeping 1994 crime bill critics blame for ushering in an era of mass incarceration. His 2020 platform pointedly pledges to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, largely the result of the 1994 law. His plan would also end incarceration for people guilty of drug use alone, diverting them into treatment programs.
RACIAL JUSTICE AND EQUITY
Early in his presidency, Trump came under fire after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “fine people on both sides” of the rally that drew white supremacists and counter-protesters. In a July 1 tweet, he called a Black Lives Matter sign a “symbol of hate.”
In response to criticism, the president has called himself “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world” and said he has done more for Black people than any president, with the “possible exception” of Abraham Lincoln.
During the first presidential debate Sept. 29, Trump made headlines when he declined to condemn white supremacists and militia groups. After moderator Chris Wallace asked repeatedly if the president would do so, Trump asked, “What do you want to call them?” When Biden suggested Trump condemn the Proud Boys, Trump told the far-right group to “stand back and stand by.”
Biden owes much of his political success to the support of Black voters, from his decades representing Delaware in the Senate to the strong showing in the South Carolina primary that propelled him past other Democratic hopefuls earlier this year. At the same time, he has drawn criticism for insensitive remarks and seemingly taking that support for granted, like when he told a Black radio host in May, “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Biden has made racial equity one of the four pillars of his “Build Back Better” pandemic recovery plan, promising to invest resources to address the nation’s racial wealth and employment gaps. His plan centers on boosting wages, investing in affordable housing and supporting small businesses in communities of color.
Trump made “build the wall” a central part of his 2016 campaign and has made restricting immigration a priority throughout his first term. Announcing his candidacy in June 2015, he famously said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
He has also moved to cut legal immigration. Since taking office, Trump has cut the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. by more than 80%. He has publicly pined for a bygone era when the country gave priority to migrants coming from European countries. In January 2018, administration officials told several news outlets Trump had asked in a meeting why the U.S. couldn’t accept more immigrants from places like Norway instead of Haiti and what Trump called “shithole countries” in Africa.
The Trump administration has also increased law enforcement operations to apprehend unauthorized immigrants in the interior of the country and banned travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. After multiple iterations of the ban were successfully challenged in the courts, a revised version has stayed in effect.
Biden has pledged to reverse many of Trump’s immigration policy changes, including construction of additional wall along parts of the southern border, although he has made securing the border with better technology a priority.
The former vice president says he would restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which protects unauthorized immigrants brought into the country as children. He also would make DACA recipients, known as “Dreamers,” eligible for federal financial aid for college. Biden’s plan would also increase refugee resettlement limits and rescind the travel ban on Muslim countries.
Biden also supports comprehensive reform of the country’s immigration system, which hasn’t had a major overhaul since 1984, to give legal status to some of the more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants the U.S. economy heavily relies on.
When Trump entered the political fold, GOP leaders – notably former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin – had been waging a long battle to reform Social Security and other “entitlement” programs, but Trump’s populist campaign vowed to protect the popular program. His 2020 platform maintains that stance, pledging to protect Social Security, although it doesn’t elaborate on what he plans to do.
The Biden campaign has alleged that Trump plans to eliminate Social Security if he is re-elected, but that claim is misleading. Trump has said he wants to do away with the payroll tax that funds Social Security but will protect the program. Trump issued an executive order Aug. 8 to temporarily defer Social Security payroll tax collection through the end of 2020, and days later he indicated he wants to fund the program through the general tax fund.
Biden has unveiled a plan to protect the Social Security Trust fund, which is on track to be exhausted by 2035, by raising taxes on wealthy taxpayers while increasing benefits for low-income seniors. It would also provide higher benefits after 20 years to bolster the finances of the oldest retirees.
Biden also promises to increase the minimum benefit for workers who spend at least three decades in the labor market to 125% of the poverty level, eliminate penalties for teachers and other public-sector workers who change jobs, and protect benefits for Social Security recipients after the death of a spouse.
FOREIGN POLICY AND TRADE
Trump’s foreign policy has been defined by his “America first” slogan, withdrawing from international agreements and favoring unilateral moves on the global stage. In addition to the Paris climate accord, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade pact meant to counter the influence of China.
While questioning America’s longstanding alliances, including with NATO and the European Union, Trump has been more open than his predecessors to forging ties with traditional adversaries, including Russia and North Korea. More recently, the Trump administration successfully brokered major diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and multiple Gulf Arab countries.
Trump’s trade policy has relied heavily on tariffs and the threat of using them, including against traditional allies and major trading partners, in order to pressure other countries into what he considers better trade deals. Other nations have reciprocated with tariffs of their own, hurting some U.S. export sectors while others have benefited from higher prices.
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations chairman, was heavily involved in foreign policy as part of the Obama administration, but during the 2020 campaign he has mostly spoken in general terms about what he hopes to do on the international stage as president.
He has extolled the virtues of America’s alliances and said the country should retake its leadership role in the world. He has pledged to host a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office to bring together allied nations and restore U.S. “moral leadership.”
ELECTION SECURITY AND VOTING RIGHTS
Trump has for months railed against mail-in voting, especially in states like Washington that use a universal vote-by-mail system, claiming that such systems will enable “massive fraud.” Voting experts and state election officials, Republicans and Democrats alike, have said that while voter fraud does sometimes occur and is prosecuted, there is no evidence that voting by mail carries the risks Trump warns of.
Trump has on multiple occasions refused to say he would accept the results of the election if he loses. At the first presidential debate, he repeated that claim, saying, “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. This is not going to end well.”
The Democratic nominee has said concerns over voting rights are what got him involved in politics. He has pledged to sign the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a measure named after the late congressman and civil rights champion that would restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That protection, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, prevented states with a history of racist voter suppression laws from changing their election laws without a go-ahead from the federal government.
Biden also has encouraged mail-in voting ahead of the Nov. 3 election, which is expected to see an unprecedented level of mail-in voting due to the pandemic.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE AND GOVERNMENT REFORM
Trump was elected with a mandate, backed by another indelible slogan, to “drain the swamp” and root out corruption in the federal government. He did implement one part of his plan early in his presidency, issuing an edict just days after his inauguration preventing former officials from lobbying the agency they worked in for five years, although the rule allows them to lobby other parts of the government.
At the same time, his administration has elevated former lobbyists to prominent roles in the agencies they once sought to influence. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, now heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette is a former vice president of Ford Motor Company. Halfway through his first term, ProPublica found, the Trump administration had hired 281 former lobbyists.
Trump also promised to implement term limits for members of Congress, a change that would require a new constitutional amendment. It would also require a majority of lawmakers to vote to cut their own careers short, a tough sell regardless of party affiliation. The “drain the swamp” section of Trump’s 2020 platform still includes passing congressional term limits, but it now focuses on “taking on international organizations” and “delegat[ing] powers back to people and states.”
Biden’s platform includes its own ambitious proposal that would require amending the Constitution, a move that would completely eliminate private campaign financing. The longtime senator, himself a prolific fundraiser, now says, “We could improve our politics overnight if we flushed big money from the system and had public financing of our elections.”
He would also restrict “Super PACs” and “dark money groups,” organizations that channel large sums of money to campaigns without disclosing the source of the financing.
Biden also promises to enforce a strict ethics code in the White House. Seeking to capitalize on his association with the last Democrat to occupy the Oval Office, Biden’s website boasts, “For the eight years of the Obama-Biden Administration, there was not a hint of scandal.”