White House aides were prepping President Joe Biden to virtually tour an electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant last week when the President suddenly shifted the conversation to something else entirely: China and the fate of democracy.
Sitting in the Oval Office, one of Biden’s economic advisers had just pointed out that China was dominating the battery market, launching the President into a riff about the need to make the necessary investments to counter China’s dominance in that industry.
But for Biden, this was about more than batteries. It was another example of what he views as a critical task of his presidency: Proving that democracy works amid the rise of brutally efficient autocracies.
“My job is to show people that government has a role and that this loss of public trust in government can be rebuilt,” Biden said, according to an aide in the room who was taking notes. “And this is a concrete way we do it.”
Senior White House aides said the concept is constantly on Biden’s mind – a “central organizing principle,” in the words of one senior official. It informs his approach to most major topics and the President regularly raises it in meetings, whether he is discussing foreign policy or electric bus batteries. And aides say Biden believes it is a key test by which historians will judge his presidency.
He is concerned about the rise of autocrats around the world but pays special attention to China these days. His administration is closely monitoring this rival’s every strategic move – including, lately, their diplomatic push to distribute Covid vaccines to developing nations around the world.
“He’s deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said of Chinese President Xi Jinping during his address to Congress on Wednesday, departing from his prepared remarks. “He and others – autocrats – think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.”
As he delivered his closing pitch to Congress, Biden hammered home the theme.
“They look at the images of the mob that assaulted the Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. But they’re wrong,” Biden said. “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and that we can deliver for our people.
The comments were just the latest in a string of public remarks at nearly a dozen events in which Biden has framed his policy priorities – foreign and domestic – through the lens of this vital test for democracy.
Whether he is selling the public on the merits of making multi-trillion dollar investments in US infrastructure, congratulating a team of NASA engineers on landing a rover on Mars or challenging Congress to pass gun reform legislation to protect Americans, Biden has weaved this belief into his approach to nearly every aspect of his presidency.
“A big part of it is looking out at Xi Jinping’s China, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the pitch that they are making more overtly now than ever before … that the autocratic model, the non-democratic model is a better model for actually solving problems,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN. “And Joe Biden in his bones believes they are wrong.”
A domestic lens on an ideological struggle
Biden’s outlook may have emerged from the geopolitical landscape, but aides say the democracy vs. autocracy framing he repeatedly harps on is primarily aimed at a domestic audience.
But whether he is emphasizing the value of democracy to other countries or to the American public, Biden believes the best path to achieving that is through a government that delivers, with the kinds of big transformative policies Biden has focused on, as he outlined in his address to Congress.
“Things are changing so rapidly in the world in science and technology and a whole range of other issues that – the question is: In a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get the consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?” Biden told TV anchors on Wednesday ahead of his congressional address. “Xi does not believe we can. That’s what he’s betting on.”
It’s one of the reasons why aides say Biden prioritized passing the safety net expansion included in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and tackling a sweeping infrastructure bill, rather than thornier progressive policies like immigration reform and gun control. And in turn, Biden has used this clarion call as a central part of his pitch for the sweeping set of government investments and programs topping his agenda, namely his $4 trillion, two-pronged package that contains proposed investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, education and child care.
“It’s really kind of a two-part puzzle. The direct piece of the puzzle is that the country needs to see again that democracy can deliver tangible results in their lives,” said Mike Donilon, Biden’s longtime senior adviser. “But it also is a proof point to the rest of the world that the future will be won by democracies, not by autocracies.”
Just 20% of Americans said they trusted government to “do the right thing” in the most recent Pew Research Center survey in September. And as former President Donald Trump crash-tested the guardrails of democracy – culminating in the January 6 insurrection – Americans responded favorably to Biden billing his campaign as “a battle for the soul of the nation” and his warnings of an erosion of democratic norms and institutions.
A senior White House official, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly, said Biden’s perspective on the rise of autocracies and the threat to democracy was “magnified by seeing some of those same characteristics reflected in the American president (Trump) and the American government for the last four years.”
“Seeing some of those characteristics really hit home,” the official said.
‘An inflection point’
Biden began to hone-in on the idea in the first weeks of his presidency, as he was deciding how to prioritize the issues in his agenda and as he prepared for his first diplomatic summit.
Sitting in the Oval Office in early February, surrounded by his foreign policy team, Biden was mulling what kind of message he wanted to deliver at his first Group of 7 summit, when he craned his neck and pointed up at the hulking portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt adorning the wall behind him.
Just as Roosevelt led the US through a pivotal decade in which democracy was threatened, Biden told his aides he believed the US was at a similar inflection point. With autocracies like China on the rise, the US – and by extension his presidency – would be judged, at least in part, on the ability to answer a fundamental question: Can the US demonstrate that democracy works?
As Biden crystalized the concept, Sullivan furiously took notes in preparation for Biden’s remarks days later at the G7 and same-day Munich Security Conference.
“We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face – from the fourth industrial to a global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue, and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential, to meeting those challenges,” Biden told the audience of world leaders at the Munich conference. “And I believe that – (with) every ounce of my being – that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”
On the domestic front, Biden’s views on that inflection point also informed decisions as he and his team of senior advisers began crafting his legislative priorities early in his presidency.
“It really kind of came into focus as these different proposals were coming together and he was making judgments about what he would focus on,” Donilon said. “He very much had a focus on delivering things that would have a real impact and that people could understand would have a real impact on their lives.”
‘They’re counting on American democracy to be too slow’
That framing – that infrastructure and climate policies, among others, are really about a global competition between democracy and autocracy – has also served to elevate issues and raise the stakes of the debate, aiming to snuff out Republican objections to hefty spending by putting issues in a national security context.
Biden’s infrastructure pitch, for example, has been laced with references to China and its fast-paced infrastructure investments.
“Do you think China is waiting around to invest in this digital infrastructure or in research and development? I promise you, they are not waiting, but they’re counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited, and too divided to keep pace,” Biden said earlier this month.
Still, even with language aimed at appealing to Republicans who have harped on the threat that China represents, Biden does not appear any closer to getting the 10 Republicans he would need to pass the infrastructure package he proposed without using the partisan budget reconciliation process.
It’s an open question as to whether a lack of bipartisan buy-in will affect the debate.
“At the end of the day, will people judge whether democracy is working based on whether or not there are significant Republican votes on the legislation that he passes? Or will they judge it based on the tangible things that are delivered by what he passes?” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “His gamble – and there’s good reason to believe it – is that tangible progress will supersede the style points.”
“If you don’t pass anything and if you don’t forge bipartisan consensus, that for sure is a defeat for democracy,” he added.
For now, Biden’s main argument is his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill and his handling of the pandemic, marked by a steady increase in vaccines and a return to a science-based approach. Officials said they hope those demonstrations of competence will reflect well on the US’s image abroad.
Biden is also still planning on ways to promote democracy abroad. The White House has been laying the groundwork for Biden to hold a Summit for Democracy in the US by the end of the year, coronavirus pandemic permitting.
The summit would invite countries who commit to a list of democratic principles and governance standards and make down payments on adhering to those principles to join Biden for a summit in the US to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing democracy in the 21st century.
The summit would also seek to encourage nascent or back-biting democracies to recommit to a democratic track.
“The power of America’s example is a power to influence the choices of other countries, whether they’re going to be transparent, respect human rights and deliver good governance to their citizens or go the route of a China or Russia. That comes down in part to America showing the world that its model can effectively deliver for its citizens,” Sullivan said. “He believes a world in which there are more like-minded capable democracies is a world that is more hospitable to American interests and values.”