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What to know about the key policies that got airtime in the presidential debate

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN on Thursday in Atlanta.
Gerald Herbert
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden during a presidential debate hosted by CNN on Thursday in Atlanta.

Thursday night’s presidential debate may be more remembered for how the candidates delivered remarks on stage and the digs they took at one another rather than the issues top of mind for voters this election year — but there was plenty of policy that got airtime.

President Biden often stumbled through his answers, derailing his train of thought. And former President Donald Trump ignored questions about addressing climate change, accepting the results of the election and he reiterated false claims about immigration and his criminal trial.

Still, immigration, abortion and the economy were among the election-year questions the candidates were asked in the 90-minute CNN presidential debate. Here are a few of the issues that took center stage.

The economy and inflation

The first question of the night focused on rising prices.

Biden said he inherited from Trump, his predecessor, an “economy that was in free fall” thanks to a pandemic that roiled the economy and tangled supply chains. It was up to his administration, Biden said, to “try and put things back together again.”

In fact, government spending in the U.S. under both Biden and Trump also may have contributed to rising prices, putting more money in people’s pockets and enabling them to keep spending in the face of high prices.

Many prices were depressed early in the pandemic, however, so the comparison is less flattering if you start the clock when Biden took office. Since early 2021, consumer prices have risen 19%, while average wages have risen 16%. Wage gains have been outpacing price increases for the last year, so that gap should eventually close.

The federal debt grew substantially under both Trump and Biden. While the pandemic accounts for much of that red ink, both presidents have overseen large deficits, including periods before and after the pandemic when the economy was in good shape.

First presidential race since Roe v. Wade was overturned

Access to abortion and varying state policy were at the center of a heated back and forth between Trump and Biden. When asked whether or not Trump would block abortion pills, which are used in about two-thirds of abortions, Trump said he agreed with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that rejected a challenge to abortion pill accessibility.

Trump ultimately took credit for bringing abortion policy “back to the states” and is a “person who believes in exceptions” for rape, incest and the life of the mother. However, some states have passed highly restrictive measures without such carve-outs.

Trump during the debate accused doctors of executing babies who are born alive after a failed abortion attempt many times. Federal data suggests that very few U.S. babies are born alive as a result of a failed abortion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 143 deaths during a 12-year period ending in 2014 involving infants born alive during attempted abortions.

The majority of abortions in the U.S. happen in the first trimester (first 12 weeks of pregnancy). Only about 1.3% take place after 21 weeks, according to the CDC, and many are not viable or may endanger the mother.

Biden accused Trump of “doing a terrible thing” — referring to the overturning of the landmark abortion rule — and argued against each state making its own rules.

“The idea that states are able to do this is a little like saying we're going to turn civil rights back to the states, let each state have a different rule,” Biden said.

Foreign policy and foreign wars lead to insults

Since the last presidential election, Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, and the war between Israel and Hamas erupted.

Trump doubled down that if he was in office, the war in Ukraine never would have happened. Biden accused Trump of encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump criticized continued federal aid to Ukraine, making the claim that he will have the war between Russia and Ukraine settled before he takes office if elected.

"The difference is he never would have invaded Ukraine, never, just like Israel would have never been invaded in a million years by Hamas," Trump said.

Biden, in response, quipped, "I've never heard so much malarkey in my whole life."

On conflicts in the Middle East, Biden boasted about being the biggest “producer of support” for Israel in the world, condemned Hamas and said he denied Israel “2,000-pound bombs.”

Trump said Biden should let Israel “finish the job,” adding a jab that Biden is a “very bad Palestinian.”

Accepting the 2024 election results?

Trump dodged a question asking him to accept the results of the elections and to agree that political violence is unacceptable.

"Well, I shouldn't have to say that," he said. "But of course, I believe that it's totally unacceptable. And if you would see my statements that I made on Twitter at the time, and also my statement that I made in the Rose Garden, you would say it's one of the strongest statements you've ever seen, in addition to the speech I made in front of, I believe, the largest crowd I've ever spoken to."

Trump denied responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, doubling down on the argument that he encouraged people to be “peaceful and patriotic.”

4 takeaways from the first presidential debate

Moderator Dana Bash reiterated her question of whether or not he would accept the results regardless of who wins.

"If it's a fair and legal and good election, absolutely," Trump said. "I would have much rather accepted these, but the fraud and everything else was ridiculous, and if you want, we'll have a news conference on it in a week, or we'll have another one of these on in a week. But I will absolutely, there's nothing I'd rather do."

— NPR's Scott Horsley contributed to this story. All video clips credited to CNN Presidential Debate.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.