Historians warn Biden personally: America’s democracy is on the brink

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President Biden paused last week, during one of the busiest periods of his presidency, for a nearly two-hour private history lesson from a group of academics raising the alarm about the dire state of democracy at home and abroad.

The conversation during a violent storm on August 4 unfolded as a kind of Socratic dialogue between the commander in chief and a select group of scholars, who portrayed the present moment as one of the most dangerous in modern history for democratic governance, according to several people familiar with the discussions. who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.

Comparisons were made with the years leading up to the 1860 election, when Abraham Lincoln warned that a “house divided against itself cannot stand,” and the lead-up to the 1940 election, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt battled increasing domestic violence. sympathy for European fascism and opposition to the United States joining World War II.

The distraction, for Biden, was part of a regular effort to use outside experts, in closed White House meetings, to help him navigate his multiple crises facing his presidency. Former President Bill Clinton spoke with Biden in May about how to deal with inflation and the midterm elections. A group of foreign policy experts, including former Republican advisers, came to the White House in January to brief Biden about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

These meetings have come as Biden faces the isolation endemic to the presidency, a problem some Democrats say has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which limited visitors for much of the first year of his presidency, and by the insular quality of Biden’s inner circle, made up of staffers who have worked with him for decades.

Biden often spends hours asking questions and testing assumptions during these table sessions, participants say.

Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, briefed Biden with other experts before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and before 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 I went to Moscow, and relatively I think they do that in a much more strategic way than we used to do in the Obama administration. It feels like they are more involved.”

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

Biden sat in the center of a dining table with the experts gathered on either side to keep the president five feet away from the group. When some contestants, including McFaul and Stavridis, appeared on a screen remotely, Biden began with brief remarks and then spent about two hours asking questions.

“They really wanted to think outside the box, is there any way to stop this war that will be terrible for everyone involved? Can we stop it? How can we stop it?” says Bremmer. “All my interactions [with the White House] have been uniformly open and constructive over the years and really wanted to get my best idea of ​​where they are doing well and where not.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the president “would appreciate hearing from a wide range of experts.” NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said: “We are in regular contact with a diverse, bipartisan collection 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 of his second year in office was to get more input from academia, editorial writers, think tanks and other outside experts. “Looking for more input, more information, more constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn’t be doing,” he told reporters.

Some meetings were more exclusive. During a private lunch with Biden on May 2, Clinton praised his successor’s efforts to build a multinational coalition that supports Ukraine.

But he also urged Biden to speak out about his administration’s efforts to fight inflation, expecting price pressures to ease in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, according to people briefed on the stock market. Clinton suggested Biden position himself to take credit for inflation cuts, if they come.

Clinton also urged Biden to create a sharp policy contrast with Republicans, especially adhering to the policy proposals of Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had proposed a five-year sunset on all federal laws, including Social Security. and Medicare, and tax increases for many Americans who don’t work.

Coincidentally, 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 former President Donald Trump. .

The historians Biden has invited to the White House generally take a longer look and place his presidency in the context of America’s path since its inception. Biden — who is 79 and has seen nine presidents up close, starting with Richard M. Nixon — has indicated that he has thought about what makes some presidents more successful than others.

The group gathered in the White House Map Room last week was part of a regular effort by presidential historians to inform presidents, a practice that goes back at least as far as the Reagan administration. Obama convened such groups several times, though the sessions fell out of favor under Trump.

After a similar meeting with Biden last spring, the August 4 meeting was distinguished by its relatively small size and the participants’ focus on the rise of totalitarianism around the world and the threat to democracy at home. Among them were 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 chief speechwriter Vinay Reddy also sat at the table.

Biden, who still tested positive for the coronavirus, appeared on a television monitor set up next to the fireplace in the room and took notes as he sat two floors up in the Treaty Room that is part of the White House residence. Senior advisor Mike Donilon also appeared on screen, say people familiar with the events.

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

One person familiar with the exchange said the conversation was primarily a way for Biden to hear and think about the larger context in which his tenure is unfolding. He made no big statements and did not discuss his future plans.

“Much of the talk was about the larger context of the struggle between democratic values ​​and institutions and the trends towards autocracy worldwide,” the person said.

Most of the experts in attendance have spoken out in recent months about the threat they see to the US Democratic project following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the continued denial by some Republicans of the 2020 election results, and the efforts of election deniers. to look for state office.

Applebaum, an Atlantic collaborator, 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 appointed to the board of directors for Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy, which aims to reduce political polarization.

Beschloss, a presidential historian who appears regularly on NBC and MSNBC, has been more vocal of what he sees as the need for Biden to do battle with anti-democratic forces in the country.

“I think he needs to talk tonight about the fact that we are all in existential danger of our democracy and democracies around the world being destroyed,” Beschloss told MSNBC in March, before Biden gave his State of the Union address.

Wilentz, award-winning author of “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” has also been sounding the alarm over the state of the country in recent months. “We’re on the cusp of what Hamilton in ‘The Federalist’ called a brutal government,” Wilentz told The Hill last month.

Part of last week’s discussion centered on similarities between today’s landscape and the period leading up to World War II, when growing authoritarianism abroad found its disturbing resonance in the United States.

When Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini consolidated their power in the 1930s, Reverend Charles Coughlin used his radio broadcast 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 over anti-democratic trends have long animated Biden, who started his 2020 campaign arguing that a “battle for the soul of the nation” was underway, a play on the phrase Meacham used to describe his 2018 book “The Nation.” Soul of America”. : The battle for our better angels.”

Democrats generally expect the same ideas to anchor Biden’s re-election campaign if he decides to move forward with a campaign, especially if Trump is his opponent again.

Biden continued to bring up such themes in his public speeches, most recently in a July speech to a law enforcement group, where he criticized Trump for failing to take immediate action when the rioters he inspired attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to undo 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 Executives. “You can’t be pro-insurgency and pro-American.”

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