Historians privately warn Biden: American democracy is on the brink

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President Biden paused last week, during one of the busiest times of his presidency, for a nearly two-hour private history lesson given by a group of academics who sounded the alarm over the disastrous state of democracy at home and abroad.

The conversation during a ferocious thunderstorm on August 4 unfolded as a kind of Socratic dialogue between the commander-in-chief and a select group of academics, who described the current moment as one of the most perilous in the modern history for democratic governance, according to several of the people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.

Comparisons have been made to the years before the 1860 election, when Abraham Lincoln warned that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” and the run-up to the 1940 election, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt fought against growing national sympathy for European fascism and resistance to the United States joining World War II.

The diversion was, for Biden, part of a regular effort to use outside experts, in private meetings at the White House, to help him work through his approach to the multiple crises facing his presidency. Former President Bill Clinton spoke with Biden in May about how to handle inflation and the midterm elections. A panel of foreign policy experts, including former Republican advisers, came to the White House in January to brief Biden ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The meetings came as Biden faces endemic isolation in the presidency, an issue that some Democrats say has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted visitors for much of the first year of his presidency, and by the insular quality of Biden’s interior. circle, made up of staff members who have worked with him for decades.

Biden, in these tabletop sessions, often spends hours asking questions and testing hypotheses, attendees say.

Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, briefed Biden along with other experts ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ahead of the president’s 2021 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

“They’re coming out of their bubble,” McFaul said. “I worked in the White House for three years before going to Moscow, and comparatively I think they do it in a much more strategic way than what we used to do in the administration Barack Obama. We feel that they are more committed.

McFaul was part of a socially distant group that met to discuss Ukraine in the East Room earlier this year, along with former diplomat Richard Haass, journalist Fareed Zakaria, analyst Ian Bremmer, the former National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill and retired Admiral James G. Stavridis. , former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

Biden sat in the center of a dining table with the pundits gathered at either end to keep the president six feet away from the group. As some attendees, including McFaul and Stavridis, appeared on a screen remotely, Biden began with brief comments and then spent about two hours asking questions.

“They really wanted to think outside the box, is there any way to stop this war, which will be horrible for everyone involved? Can we stop it? How can we stop it?” Bremmer said. “All my interactions [with the White House] over the past few years I’ve been consistently open, constructive, and genuinely interested in knowing where they’re succeeding and where they’re not.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the president “appreciates hearing from a wide range of experts.” NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said, “We are in regular contact with a diverse and bipartisan set of experts and stakeholders on a variety of topics, including Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.

At a press conference in January, Biden said a priority in his second year in office was to get more input from academics, editorial writers, think tanks and other outside experts. “Seeking more feedback, more information, more constructive criticism of what I should and shouldn’t do,” he told reporters.

Some encounters have been more exclusive. During a private lunch with Biden on May 2, Clinton praised his successor’s efforts to build a multinational coalition supporting Ukraine.

But he also urged Biden to talk about his administration’s efforts to fight inflation, hoping that price pressures would ease in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, according to people briefed on the news. ‘exchange. Clinton suggested Biden is positioning himself to take credit for inflation cuts, if they occur.

Clinton also urged Biden to create a stark political contrast with Republicans, leaning in particular on policy proposals from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had proposed a five-year sunset on all laws federal benefits, including Social Security and Medicare, and tax increases for many nonworking Americans.

As it happens, the White House was already planning a similar contrast, and days later Biden publicly laid out what he called the “ultra MAGA agenda,” a reference to the “Make America Great Again” movement organized around of former President Donald Trump. .

The historians Biden has invited to the White House generally take a longer-term view, placing his presidency in the context of how far America has come since its founding. Biden — who is 79 and has seen nine presidents up close, starting with Richard M. Nixon — signaled he’s been thinking about what makes some presidencies more successful than others.

The group that met last week in the White House Map Room was part of a regular effort by presidential historians to brief presidents, a practice that dates back at least to the Reagan administration. Obama has convened such groups on several occasions, although the sessions have fallen out of favor under Trump.

After a similar meeting with Biden last spring, the Aug. 4 rally was notable for its relatively small size and participants’ focus on the rise of totalitarianism around the world and the threat to democracy at home. They included Biden’s occasional speechwriter Jon Meacham, journalist Anne Applebaum, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, University of Virginia historian Allida Black and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Senior White House adviser Anita Dunn and editor Vinay Reddy were also seated at the table.

Biden, who still tested positive for the coronavirus, appeared on a TV screen set up next to the room’s fireplace, taking notes as he sat two stories up in the Treaty Hall that is part of the White House residence. Senior adviser Mike Donilon also appeared onscreen, say people familiar with the events.

During the discussion, a loud clap of thunder could be heard, which attendees later discovered coincided with a lightning strike that killed three people in Lafayette Square across from the White House.

A person familiar with the exchange said the conversation was primarily a way for Biden to hear and reflect on the larger context in which his term unfolds. He did not make any major statements or discuss his plans for the future.

“Much of the conversation focused on the larger context of the struggle between democratic values ​​and institutions and autocratic tendencies around the world,” the person said.

Most of the pundits in attendance have been outspoken in recent months about the threat they see to the U.S. Democratic project, following the attack on the Capitol on January 6, continued denial by some Republicans of the 2020 election results, and efforts elections. denarii to apply for a state post.

Applebaum, an Atlantic contributor, recently published a book on the erosion of democratic norms called “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” Black, a longtime adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was recently named to the board of Vanderbilt University’s American Unity and Democracy Project, which aims to reduce political polarization.

Beschloss, a presidential historian who appears regularly on NBC and MSNBC, has recently become more outspoken about what he sees as Biden’s need to fight anti-democratic forces in the country.

“I think he needs to speak tonight about the fact that we are all in existential danger of seeing our democracy and our democracies around the world destroyed,” Beschloss said in March on MSNBC, before Biden delivered the speech on the state of the union.

Wilentz, award-winning author of “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” has also expressed concern in recent months about the state of the country. “We are on the verge of what Hamilton in ‘The Federalist’ called government by brute force,” Wilentz told The Hill last month.

Part of last week’s discussion focused on the similarities between today’s landscape and the pre-World War II period, when growing authoritarianism abroad found its disturbing echo in the United States.

As German Adolf Hitler and Italian Benito Mussolini consolidated their power in the 1930s, Reverend Charles Coughlin used his radio show to spread a populist anti-Semitic message in the United States. Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) also rallied Americans against Roosevelt and showed sympathy for the dictatorial government.

Concerns about anti-democratic tendencies have long driven Biden, who began his 2020 campaign by saying a ‘battle for the soul of the nation’ was underway, a play on the phrase Meacham used to title his book. of 2018 “The Soul of America”. : The battle for our best angels.

Democrats generally expect the same ideas to anchor Biden’s re-election campaign, should he decide to press ahead with one, especially if Trump is his opponent again.

Biden has continued to bring up such themes in his public speeches, most recently in a July address to a law enforcement group, where he criticized Trump for taking no immediate action as rioters he had inspired attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to overturn the results of the recent presidential election.

“You can’t be pro-insurgency and pro-democracy,” Biden told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials. “You can’t be pro-insurgency and pro-American.”


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