President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered starkly divergent closing arguments to the country in the final presidential debate on Thursday, offering opposite prognoses for a range of issues, including the coronavirus pandemic.
The debate was, on the whole, a more restrained affair than the first encounter between the two candidates last month, when Mr. Trump harangued Mr. Biden for most of an hour and a half and effectively short-circuited any policy debate. But if the tenor of Thursday’s forum was more sedate, the conflict in matters of substance and vision could not have been more dramatic.
From the opening minutes, the two candidates took opposing stances on the pandemic, with Mr. Trump promising, in defiance of evidence, that the disease was “going away.” The next morning, Alex M. Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the president was “trying to give people hope, given the vaccines and therapeutics that are coming in around the corner.” Speaking on CNN, Mr. Azar said, “But we do need to acknowledge — and he does acknowledge — that we’re in a very serious moment right now.”
Mr. Biden, on Thursday, called for much more aggressive federal action for the “dark winter” ahead.
Mr. Trump appeared determined to cast his opponent as a career politician who was, as he jabbed toward the end of the debate, “all talk and no action.”
Mr. Trump, however, did little to lay out an affirmative case for his own re-election, or to explain in clear terms what he would hope to do with another four years in the White House. He frequently misrepresented the facts of his own record, and Mr. Biden’s. And on his most important political vulnerability — his mismanagement of the pandemic — Mr. Trump hewed unswervingly to a message that happy days are nearly here again, even as polls show that a majority of voters believe the worst of the coronavirus crisis is still ahead.
Mr. Biden, for his part, stuck to the core of the argument that has propelled his campaign from the start, denouncing Mr. Trump as a divisive and unethical leader who has botched the federal response to a devastating public-health crisis. Though Mr. Trump pushed him onto the defensive repeatedly, the former vice president also laid out a fuller version of his own policy agenda than he managed in the first debate, calling for large-scale economic stimulus spending, new aid to states battling the pandemic and a muscular expansion of health care and worker benefits nationwide.