In the First Presidential Debate, Small Businesses Have One Agenda Item: Show Me the Money

Tuesday night marks the first time President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will square off on the state of the economy during this 2020 election cycle. What business owners want to know: Where’s the promised Phase 4 stimulus bill?

Various stimulus efforts, which each promised to extend federal small-business aid like the Paycheck Protection Program, have been held up by partisan bickering over key sticking points such as greater liability protections for businesses and funding for states and localities. Meanwhile, nearly two million–mostly small–American firms have already closed in 2020, according to the Hagaman, New York-based Oxxford Information Technology, an information services firm, which tracks about 32 million businesses. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases continue to ratchet up. The U.S. death toll reached 200,000 last week, a perilous milestone. Former hot spots like New York State are starting to see cases tick up, while cases increased more than 10 percent in a week in states such as Oklahoma and North and South Dakota.

Faced with the prospect of continued hardship, small business owners want action–and they’re united about what should happen next. More than two thirds of the small business owners recently polled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that it is more important for political leaders to compromise to get things done, rather than stick to their beliefs in a time of crisis. A whopping 82 percent believe partisan gridlock in the federal government is a serious problem. 

It’s unclear to what extent the plight of U.S. small businesses will register in the debate–particularly after Trump just unveiled his nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor who now sits on a Chicago federal appeals court. If confirmed, she would replace  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to ever serve on the high court.

You can bet that Trump will want to distance himself from the coronavirus, says Robert Litan, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Trump will try to spend a lot of time on his Court pick and law and order; he will want to stay as far away from virus as possible.” Indeed, the government’s response to the pandemic has been the source of increasingly heated discussion among business groups.

By contrast, he says, “Biden will be putting the response to the virus front and center of his remarks, as he has for his campaign.” Biden has been a vocal critic of Trump’s resistance to a national facemask policy, among other potentially fraught missteps.

He’s also liable to weigh in Congressional inaction. While the House is planning to ink yet another stimulus deal this week–one that’s worth about $1 trillion less than the one it already passed in May–many Republican lawmakers in the Senate are dug in against providing more aid. Indeed, political infighting has made it tough for the Senate to pass its own proposals of which there have been several since the final week of July.

And though there has been discussion of passing smaller bipartisan small business-relief bills piecemeal, like the Continuing Small Business Recovery and Paycheck Protection Program Act and the Restart Act, which received wide support from the business community, those new efforts have proved unpalatable for lawmakers, too.

Biden will also need to answer tough questions. He’ll need to portray to the American people–and to businesses in particular–that he would have offered a more effective response than Trump. And he’ll need to communicate a plan to get the country out of this mess should he win the election, says Karen Kerrigan, president of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Vienna, Virginia. “It is unacceptable that another stimulus and recovery package has not advanced to the President’s desk, and I’d like to hear how Joe Biden would do this differently to force Congress to act. That is, how would he lead differently to get both sides to work together?”

Either way the stakes are so high that it’s hard to understate the situation for entrepreneurs. “Small business is in severe trouble [and] it’s not just because there is no additional relief in sight for average people and because the  Paycheck Protection Program hasn’t been extended, but because it looks like we are at the beginning of a second wave,” says Litan. In this instance, he says, no level of reopening statewide economies will help relieve economic conditions if people continue to get sick. In other words, Litan adds: “Main Street businesses are in trouble, and the six-month outlook for them is not good, I would expect many more to go out of business.” 

The debate starts at 9 p.m. EST on September 29 and is viewable at various outlets. Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday, is moderator. 

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