Signage outside of the McCamish Pavilion on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus ahead of the first presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, US, on Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — The presidential debate on Thursday will showcase Joe Biden and Donald Trump going toe-to-toe on policy for the first time this election cycle.

The matchup is the only time a sitting president has squared off with a former president, meaning each candidate will have a record to defend and a possible second-term strategy to lay out to the American people.

Hot-button topics all but certain to be discussed include immigration, the economy, reproductive rights and democracy.

Here is a closer look at where Biden and Trump stand on key election-year issues, as reflected and ranked in a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll:

Cost of living

Inflation has consistently polled as a top issue for voters, leaving both candidates eager to draw favorable contrasts at the debate.

On the campaign trail, Trump has frequently criticized Biden for the nation’s yearslong bout of elevated inflation. Consumer prices have climbed roughly 20% over the three-plus years since Biden took office, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. 

“Inflation has killed our economy,” Trump said at a rally in Racine, Wisconsin, last week. “It’s a nation buster.”

For his part, Biden has acknowledged that price increases remain too high but he has touted significant progress in bringing inflation down well below its peak. He has also noted that wage increases are outpacing inflation, leaving Americans with greater spending power despite the high prices.

On policy, Trump has targeted Biden over environmental regulations such as limits placed on some oil and gas drilling, though last year the U.S. produced more oil than any year in its history, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Biden, by contrast, has promoted proposals that seek to alleviate stubborn prices for goods such as housing and prescription drugs. He has portrayed Trump’s proposed tax cuts and tariffs as policies that would raise prices and benefit the wealthy.

“They’re fighting for billionaires on Park Avenue — I’m fighting for families like the ones I grew up with in Scranton,” Biden said in a statement earlier this month.

Crime, gun violence

Both Biden and Trump are expected to boast about their records on lowering crime. In his State of the Union Address in March, Biden said the nation reported a historically low murder rate in 2023 and that overall violent crime had plummeted to one of the lowest levels in 50 years.

But Trump can counter that the U.S. violent crime rate in the nation’s 70 major cities is still much higher than when he was president with murders up 20% and aggravated assaults up 16% since 2019, according to the Major Cities Chief’s Association.


Both candidates are making what happened in November 2020 and on Jan. 6, 2021, central to their 2024 campaigns — in very different ways.

Defending democracy is an animating theme of Biden’s reelection bid, as he and his team paint Trump as an existential threat to the country’s founding principles and the upcoming election as a battle for the nation’s “soul.”

“It’s clear that when he lost in 2020, something snapped in him,” Biden said of Trump at a campaign reception last month, where he criticized Trump for “unleashing an in insurrection,” calling Jan. 6 rioters “patriots” and his comment that he would be a dictator on “Day 1.”

Trump is now trying to flip the script and counter that Biden is the “threat to democracy” and accuses him of weaponizing the federal government and judicial system to prosecute a political opponent.

At the same time, he continues to make false claims about the 2020 election and vows to enact retribution on his political foes if elected.

Health care, drug prices

During his presidency, Trump tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but he was able to make some significant changes, including ending the individual mandate penalty — issuing a fine if you are uninsured. Trump is vowing that if elected to a second term, he will replace the ACA with his own “much better” program. If the ACA is repealed, it would result in millions of people losing their insurance, missed health screenings and even lost jobs, estimates suggest.

Meanwhile Biden has restored some of the cuts Trump made, including funding for consumer assistance and a record number of people signed up for health insurance through ACA in 2023. The HHS has said the Biden administration “continues to make increasing coverage a top priority”

Both Trump and Biden have spoken about the high price of prescription drugs but have tackled the issue differently.

The Trump administration did not do much to lower prices or propose a plan of its own but did start a program to lower out-of-pocket insulin costs for seniors on Medicare and started a pathway for states to bring in lower-priced drugs from Canada, which Biden followed through.

In 2022, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which capped out-of-pocked insulin costs at $35. Additionally, last year, the Biden administration announced that it would begin direct price negotiations on 10 widely-used drugs under Medicare, an attempt to drive down out-of-pocket costs for seniors, which will go into effect in 2026.

The administration said it plans to negotiate more drug prices through 2029 for up to 60 different medications.

Immigration, border security

Throughout most of Biden’s presidency, Republicans have seized on the high number of apprehensions made by the U.S. Border Patrol — a key indicator of illegal crossing attempts.

However, after border apprehensions reached historic highs last December, the numbers have since declined. The Border Patrol made 117,906 apprehensions along the southwest border in May — marking the third consecutive monthly decline.

Additionally, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday that authorities at the border have nearly doubled the number of migrants deported or returned since the Biden administration implemented its latest round of restrictions on the right for migrants to claim asylum.

“We are imposing stricter consequences for those who crossed the border without authorization,” Mayorkas said in Tucson, Arizona Wednesday. “These actions are changing the calculus for those considering crossing our border.”

Over the past three weeks, Mayorkas said, the DHS has operated more than 100 international removal flights, returning more than 24,000 people to more than 40 countries.

Border Patrol encounters have also dropped by more than 40% across the southern border since the restrictions were implemented, Mayorkas said.

Foreign policy, world standing

In polls ranking voters’ priorities, foreign policy tends to lag well behind domestic issues. But two major wars raging overseas, pressing U.S. national security concerns, and division over Biden’s approach to Gaza amid an extremely tight race have the potential to change that.

Trump has often falsely claimed his time in the White House was free of international conflicts and asserted that he could have the war in Ukraine wrapped up in a matter of hours. But aside from political bluster, Trump has said little about his actual plans other than suggesting he would cut back on U.S. military aid to Kyiv.

Similarly, Trump has also called for a speedy end to the Israel-Hamas war — urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “get it over with” while also criticizing the optics of the country’s campaign in Gaza during an April interview.

But the former president does have some experience with attempting to resolve the decades-long, underlying conflict driving the war today. In early 2020, the Trump stood alongside Netanyahu as rolled out his detailed plan for a two-state solution, but the proposal was seen as one-sided in favor of Israel and flatly rejected by Palestinian leaders.

Rather than expounding on his plans for another four years in office, Biden’s biggest challenge is justifying what’s currently happening on the ground in Gaza to would-be Democratic voters who are outraged about his administration’s ongoing support for Israel.

And that outrage is likely to be on full display as the candidates face off. In recent weeks, Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have staged large protests outside of the White House and fundraisers, and a coalition of several groups are planning to gather outside CNN’s studios the night of the debate.

Biden announced a U.S.-backed proposal for a cease-fire-hostage release plan that his administration believes could ultimately end the Israel-Hamas war in late May. However, Hamas has not accepted it. Negotiators are still trying to move talks forward, but some lawmakers in the president’s own party are growing anxious and pressing the White House for a fallback plan.

The Biden campaign is likely to see Ukraine as more favorable terrain and emphasize the president’s work to strengthen critical alliances like NATO — drawing a sharp contrast with Trump, who said in February that he would encourage Russia to invade members that did not meet defense spending requirements.

US military

Both Biden and Trump agree that no U.S. military troops should be sent to Ukraine to counter Russia’s invasion. But they differ on whether to continue providing U.S. military aid to Ukraine that so far totals $70 billion with Biden strongly advocating for it to continue. Trump had previously supported providing aid to Ukraine via a loan arrangement, but has more recently indicated that he would quickly move to cut it off.

Most of the military aid provided to Ukraine by the Biden administration comes from existing U.S. military stocks so it can get to the battlefield quickly. The dollar cost associated with the aid is the amount being spent on new weapons, built in the United States, to replace those being given to Ukraine.

The Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific to deter China’s aggressive behavior in the region. But the war between Hamas and Israel has once again shown how that turn can be difficult when there are flare-ups in the Middle East.

Stateside, the U.S. military has become a target of domestic political debates on abortion and diversity as some of the Pentagon’s policies were criticized by Republicans. For example, Biden reversed a Trump administration decision to end diversity training within the department which triggered Republican criticisms that the military’s recruiting was being affected by what they labeled as a “woke military.”

Reproductive rights

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, ending federal protections for abortion rights, care has transformed across the country.

The candidates are on opposite sides of the issue: Trump — fulfilling his 2016 campaign promise — nominated three of the five conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overrule Roe, has taken careful steps back from the issue, saying it should be left up to the states to regulate access, while Biden supports abortion rights and has called on Congress to codify protections available under Roe.

At least 14 states have ceased nearly all abortion services since Roe was overruled, and seven others have restricted access to abortion care. In the first half of 2023, one in five patients had to travel across state lines to access abortion care, nearly double the number of patients traveling for care in 2020.

In the midterm elections, voters in every state who had abortion questions on the ballot chose to uphold abortion rights, including conservative states Kansas and Kentucky. At least four more states have abortion or reproductive rights related questions on the ballot this November.

Culture wars, education

A new era of culture wars has dominated politics in recent years, a war Trump plans to embrace in his plans for education.

Trump’s campaign platform “Agenda 47” details a plan centering on prayer in public schools, an expansion of parental rights, patriotism as a centerpiece of education and the “American Way of Life.”

Trump’s plan also states he “will promote positive education about the nuclear family, the roles of mothers and fathers, and celebrating rather than erasing the things that make men and women different and unique.”

Trump has promised to shut down the Department of Education, sending “all education work and needs back to the States,” according to his Agenda 47 plan.

As for higher education, Trump’s agenda states that he plans to create a new university called the “American Academy” and fund it by “taxing, fining, and suing” private universities.

Trump has also expressed plans to dismantle so-called “woke” or diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in education across the board.

For Biden, his administration has been focused on tackling student loan debt, increasing funding to public schools and addressing COVID-19 era education setbacks.

Throughout his time in office thus far, the Biden administration has approved $167 billion in relief for 4.75 million borrowers across the country,

Biden also touts his American Rescue Plan for sending $130 billion in funding to “address the academic and mental health needs of students,” with a focus on low-income and high-need schools, including the hiring of teachers, counselors, social workers, and others.

Biden has denounced the recent rise in book banning efforts across the country, as well as Republican-backed legislation that restricts lessons on race, sex, gender, and more in schools.

Instead, he has embraced diversity initiatives aiming to tackling inequality with direct funding to low-income schools, the development of magnet schools, HBCUs, and more.

On LGBTQ issues, the two sides also continue to be at odds.

Biden has signed several executive orders to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination, including ending funding to any programs running conversion therapy, expanding resources for LGBTQ youth suicide prevention, expanding HIV/AIDS prevention strategies and research, and more.

Biden also supports the Equality Act, which would expand federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

Biden recently expanded Title IX to include gender identity under sex-based discrimination protections.

Trump has vowed to dismantle the new Title IX addition, prevent gender-affirming care for transgender youth, remove federal funding from institutions that support transgender identities and more, according to his Agenda 47.

Trump also states he plans on asking Congress to pass a bill that would declare that there are only two genders and that they are determined at birth.

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