Analysis: A newly restrained Trump faces the same old problems

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump turned in the restrained and consistent performance his advisers said he needed in his final debate with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, but it was unlikely to alter the U.S. presidential race in any fundamental way.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their final 2020 U.S. presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., October 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

With just 11 days to go before the Nov. 3 election, Trump still faces the same fundamental problem: A country battered by the coronavirus, with cases spiking anew, and an economy that has yet to fully rebound from the pandemic.

Once again, the Republican president had no real counter to Biden’s criticism of his handling of the virus that has killed more than 221,000 Americans other than to say that the nation is “turning the corner.”

Biden leads Trump in opinion polls nationally as the race enters its final stretch, although his edge is tighter in key battleground states.

Thursday’s debate in Nashville, Tennessee, was the last time for both candidates to share a stage before a large television audience, and Trump engaged in a more civil discourse with far fewer interruptions than at their first debate in September.

“Trump was fine tonight. Might even give it to him on points. It’s just not the game-changer he needs,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist in Virginia who has worked on U.S. Senate campaigns.

Trump continued to insist that businesses should fully reopen and all students should return to schools, while playing down predictions that the winter would bring a second devastating wave of cases. “We’re learning to live with it,” said Trump, who battled the virus himself earlier this month.

Polling by Reuters/Ipsos has shown that a majority of Americans have continuously faulted Trump for his handling of the pandemic, and it has remained atop voters’ list of concerns throughout the year.

Compounding Trump’s challenge: Just a small sliver of undecided voters remain, polls show, as more than 48 million Americans already have voted. And while Trump for the most part stayed composed and controlled on the debate stage, he appeared not to try to connect with that fraction of the electorate.

There was little recognition from the president that most of the public watching at home had endured a brutal year marked by lockdowns, layoffs, illness and death. When Biden sought to appeal directly to struggling families, Trump dismissed it as empty political rhetoric.

“Typical politician,” Trump said. “That’s why I got elected.”

With polls showing healthcare to be a priority issue, Trump declared that he wants to “terminate” the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the program known as Obamacare, while still offering no replacement that would protect people with pre-existing health conditions, including COVID-19.

“Voters are generally concerned with substance,” said Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan. “Biden’s continual focus on middle-class voters was intentional and will further complicate Trump’s task with regards to undecided voters.”


Biden, as has been his focus, tried to hammer Trump on kitchen-table issues including healthcare, wages and Social Security. He, too, was more crisp than in the first debate, largely avoiding his trademark digressions, and he had a memorable moment when he mocked Trump for comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln.

Trump’s vulnerability on the pandemic has forced him to turn to other stratagems to try to get back in the race, including aiming to brand Biden as a corrupt politician in the same manner he attempted to do with Democrat Hillary Clinton four years ago before he edged out a narrow victory.

Donovan said the gambit would yield diminishing returns in an election where voters have far greater concerns.

“It just feels like a ham-fisted attempt to reprise 2016, which worked – barely – because a dozen things went exactly right, and people had nothing else to worry about,” he said.

Kall said Trump may have been at his most persuasive when he suggested that Biden had been largely ineffective during his 47 years in public office, including eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. “Undecided voters frequently are most concerned about what candidates have done for them lately,” he said.

But therein lies another hurdle for Trump as the race heads into its final week. In 2016, he was the outsider insurgent, having never held public office. As the incumbent this time, he is himself a politician, despite his assertions to the contrary.

That means when many voters look around for someone to blame for the state of the nation, he is first in line. Despite his less acrimonious performance on Thursday, the race remains a referendum on him.

Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller