Prior to his address to Congress tonight, President Biden met with a group of reporters and talked with them about what he thinks this moment in history will be remembered for. And as far as that goes, I have to agree with his assessment.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden told a small group of network and cable news anchors assembled at the White House. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.”
Biden continued, “You know, things are moving so damn rapidly. 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 consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
Biden left no doubt that the core of what he was talking about was the rivalry between China and the United States:
[Chinese President] Xi, Biden said, is betting that “democracy cannot — cannot — keep up with” China.
Biden is betting on democracy — and that, in his view, will require consensus and big investments.
As much as I’m relieved that he’s seeing the big picture and has correctly identified the central opponent we face on the world stage, nearly everything else he said here was a mess.
Democracy functions when people are able to elect representatives in free and fair elections. America has those and China does not. America would like to see other countries have real elections too while China is busy clamping down on democracy activists in Hong Kong, throwing Uighurs into prison work camps and jailing people who complain about President Xi on social media.
So what Biden should have said here is that when it comes to democracy vs. autocracy, we’re completely winning this contest because our people are free and China’s people are not. Instead, Biden went on to suggest that the current test of democracy is whether or not he is able to pass his budget busting agenda through a divided congress.
Now look, I understand (I think) what Biden is trying to say. He’s arguing that we need America to continue to grow and stay competitive with China and he believes his agenda is key to making that happen. I think that’s what he’s saying, maybe we’ll find out tonight.
But I think it’s possible to discuss America’s prospects in this contest of rival political systems without turning into Debbie Downer. Ronald Reagan helped us win a similar global conflicts between competing systems and part of what he did was make us believe we could win. Again, maybe Biden will take a stab at that tonight but it really doesn’t come across much in this description of his meeting with the press.
As for his agenda, part of politics in a democracy is the necessity of compromise. No president wants to compromise but the fact remains that we had an election and people voted to hand the Senate to Democrats (just barely) and also voted to reduce the size of the Democrats’ majority in the house. In short, we have a very divided government.
Biden can go out and barnstorm the country, starting with his speech tonight, and try to make the case for his agenda. He can try to persuade voters he’s right and that they should support his bills and give his party even more power in 2022. But if people don’t do those things, if they don’t like the size of his bill or decide to give the House back to Republicans, that’s not a problem with democracy, it’s democracy in action. It’s actually a bit worrisome that Biden is suggesting the key to winning this battle isn’t protecting democracy but whether democracy can rival the speed with which autocrats can make decisions.
An American president, especially one who is talking about the fundamental conflict between democracy and autocracy, needs to be careful about conflating wins for his team with the health of democracy writ large. Confusion on that point is exactly how you wind up with a one party system like the one in China.