In the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace did Joe Biden no favors when he noted that the Democratic nominee seemed more hesitant than incumbent President Donald Trump when asked about reopening the country after coronavirus-related closures. In response, Trump seized the moment and successfully painted his opponent as the avatar of painful, economy-wrecking lockdowns.
In a chaotic, horrendous debate in which few actual substantive ideas were debated productively—and no one came off looking good—this was clearly a strong moment for the incumbent.
"[Biden] wants to shut this country down and I want to keep it open," said Trump. "He wants to shut it down again. He will destroy this country."
The president claimed that shutting down the country was necessary at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the potential for long-term damage means states should prioritize reopening. Trump also called out individuals states and cities run by Democratic politicians—Pennsylvania, New York City, and others—and claimed that continued lockdowns were destroying jobs, families, and small businesses.
"It's almost like being in prison," said Trump. "Look at what's going on with divorce, alcoholism, drugs. It's very sad. [Biden] will close down the whole thing. We don't need someone to come in and shut it down."
When it was his turn to respond, Biden pivoted. Bafflingly, he mostly refused to rebut the charge that he would shut down the economy again. Instead, he accused Trump, and wealthy people in general, of continuing to rake in millions and billions while common people were suffering.
"The difference is millionaires and billionaires in the COVID crisis have done very well," said Biden. "You folks in working-class towns, how are you doing?"
It was clearly an effort to discuss the recent New York Times story about Trump paying very little in income taxes over the years. This is a perfectly fine line of attack, but it didn't really address the topic at hand: ruinous coronavirus lockdowns. But if Trump wanted viewers to believe that Biden would shut down the economy again at a moment's notice, Biden did little to dispel this notion. He claimed that businesses and schools needed more money in order to thrive and that he would work with congressional leaders to provide them with financial and logistical support. On the other hand, it seemed clear that Trump wants to reopen schools—a top demand of frustrated, working-class parents in large cities run by Democrats—whereas Biden might defer to the special interests within his political coalition: namely, pro-shutdown teachers unions.
This seems like one of the stronger arguments Trump can make for reelection: Vote for me, or the economic and social misery relating to pandemic-era restrictions will continue, possibly getting worse. It's an argument quite at odds with the president's actual record, of course: As the death toll climbs past 200,000, the Trump administration has largely failed to prevent coronavirus-related misery. But Biden could have forcefully clarified that he will work to return the U.S. to normal as swiftly as possible, even in the absence of funding allocated by Congress. He didn't.