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Voter prep for Biden-Trump debate: Where they stand on foreign policy, abortion

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: President Biden stands in a room with former President Trump tonight, and on this morning before, we have some debate prep - not for the candidates, but for us, so that we are prepared to follow what the candidates say. Earlier this week, we got a briefing on immigration - the facts on the ground and two different approaches to that issue. We also had a memo on the economy - the AB test, as it was called - four years of Trump versus four years of Biden. Today, we have a briefing, a president's daily brief, except it's a voters' daily brief on two more contentious issues.

We've brought in our correspondents who cover the candidates, NPR's Asma Khalid and Franco Ordoñez. Welcome, guys.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: It's good to see you both. So the first big issue I want to talk about today is foreign policy - America and the world. We have an AB test there as well, Franco Ordoñez, Trump versus Biden. What case is Trump making?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, the world has changed a lot since Trump was in office. Trump makes the case - this is his argument - that the world is a more dangerous place. He basically says that Biden allowed the war in Ukraine, allowed Russia to attack Ukraine. He blames Biden for the Hamas attack in Israel - and not only that, Afghanistan - the chaotic exit of Afghanistan that led to the deaths of 13 U.S. service members, as well as roughly 170 Afghan civilians.

INSKEEP: A lot to follow up on there, but first, wasn't Biden executing Trump's plan in Afghanistan?

ORDOÑEZ: That is true. I mean, this was the plan that Trump put in motion. But Trump likes to say that he would have done it differently.

KHALID: I do think it's worth keeping in mind that when you look at President Biden's approval rating, the moment when it first began to dip underwater was in August of 2021. It coincides with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I think that's worth keeping in mind because Biden really came into office as the adult in the room - the man who could provide stability, both here at home, globally, after some of the more chaotic moments under the Trump presidency.

INSKEEP: When you look at Biden's presidency overall, can he still make the case that he's the adult in the room?

KHALID: Well, look. You know, he has certainly helped defend Europe, defend Ukraine without committing any U.S. troops on the ground. And although Trump may make the argument that the world is a more dangerous place under Joe Biden, as, you know, Trump portrays, that is not the reality that a number of world leaders see. They see the United States as being a more stable partner. Biden has certainly tried to rebuild alliances that were broken, particularly in Europe, under Trump. He has also tried to, you know, strengthen NATO. And NATO is a bigger, more powerful force than it was since Joe Biden took office.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, there's no question that Europe sees the United States as being more dependable. That said, what Trump is saying about too much war is resonating with a lot of the American public, and that has been an effective message for him.

INSKEEP: Franco, you said a moment ago that Trump said the Ukraine War would never have happened if he was in office, that the Hamas attack wouldn't have happened - not provable statements, I guess. Has he detailed anything he would do differently?

ORDOÑEZ: No, he has not done that. He has indicated in some interviews he has a plan to resolve those issues and that he could do it very quickly - 24 hours, in fact, when it comes to Ukraine. That said, he says he cannot reveal what those plans are because that would, like, reveal his hand, and he wouldn't be able to negotiate once he's in power.

INSKEEP: OK, well, let's get a briefing now on abortion rights as we prepare for tonight's debate. Asma, how is Biden approaching that issue?

KHALID: Well, I think there's two central arguments that you hear the Biden campaign make. And one of them is that they are trying to directly attribute the fall of Roe v. Wade, this landmark Supreme Court decision, to Donald Trump. They say that he hand-picked three Supreme Court justices that helped overturn that decision.

The other argument that they make is that things could potentially get worse around reproductive rights if Trump were to win a second term of office. They point to things like IVF and contraception being vulnerabilities. And, you know, one argument you hear Democrats make - in fact, I was out covering Kamala Harris, the vice president, at a campaign rally in Maryland this week. She said explicitly that Donald Trump, if he gets the chance, would sign a national ban on abortion that could outlaw abortion in every single state in the country.

INSKEEP: Franco, is that the case?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, he says it is not the case. He insists that he wants to keep this issue within the states. But look, Steve. This is an issue that Trump does not really want to talk about. I mean, this is an issue that's been very difficult for him and very difficult for Republicans. He knows, politically, that extremely well. He's been talking to his allies in the party and saying, look, they need to adjust. They need to win, is what he says.

KHALID: And the counter to that is that President Biden and Democrats broadly see abortion as being one of their great electoral political strengths. The question here is whether Biden on the debate stage can connect himself directly to that issue. So does it mean that voters who support abortion will also come out and support the Democratic candidate for president?

INSKEEP: OK, so we've gotten briefings on several issues now as we prepare for this debate. Let's sum up. What is the opportunity that each candidate sees in this historically early meeting?

KHALID: Well, sources within the Biden campaign, folks involved in Biden's debate planning, tell me that they believe this is about presenting a contrasting vision, whether it's on the economy, abortion, democracy, a whole host of issues. They fundamentally don't think voters are tuned in to the binary choice, that this November will be a rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

ORDOÑEZ: I would echo many of those same points from the Trump side, as well. I mean, they also are seeking a contrast between Trump's first four years in office versus Biden's current four years in office. In addition to that, a big strategy that Trump has had all along is to frame this debate or frame this contest between strength and weakness. Look; Trump knows the power of TV. He's looking towards that onstage clash. I think there are a lot of people who are going to be watching, for example, those first few moments when Trump and Biden introduced and walking towards each other, no one talking, and whether or not they shake hands. I think that is going to be a powerful moment.

KHALID: One other point I want to mention is that it seems like both the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign believe that what they need to do on debate night is just fundamentally let the other candidate talk, and that if voters hear Trump or Biden, they will potentially eventually see the, quote, "light" and come to their side.

INSKEEP: NPR'S Asma Khalid and Franco Ordoñez, it's a pleasure seeing you. Thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Steve.

KHALID: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.