Where Biden’s global democracy drive is vulnerable: The home front

Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and U.S. President Joe Biden attend a working session during the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021.

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It’s a tough job that President Joe Biden has set for himself and America: to lead the way in promoting democracy against autocracy on the international stage.

He found U.S. allies receptive to the idea when he met them in Europe this week and last, but his trip has made another message clear. His task will not be easy.

Why We Wrote This

Joe Biden wants America to lead democracies in a global contest with autocracies like China. But many abroad have less faith than they once did in the health of America’s own democracy.

That’s largely because many foreign leaders and their citizens are voicing skepticism about America’s democratic health. One recent global poll found that while 75% of respondents trusted Mr. Biden to “do the right thing” on international affairs, only 17% thought  America was setting a good example for democracies worldwide.

To promote democracy, Mr. Biden will have to prove that it meets people’s needs, that it works. He has set before Western nations ambitious goals on climate change and building new infrastructure for poor countries.

The trouble is that the domestic American version of these goals, the American Jobs Plan, is currently mired in congressional gridlock.

That raises a question. How can an American president convince the world that democratic governance can deliver effective and ambitious policy if he’s unable to make good on that promise at home?

It’s an ambitious goal that President Joe Biden has set himself and his nation to lead the way in what he sees as the central international challenge of our age: the repair and reinvigoration of democracy as an ideal model of government.

It’s a real-life “contest,” the president told reporters at the end of last weekend’s meeting in Britain of the G-7 group of advanced economies. Ranged on the opposing side were the “autocratic governments around the world,” chiefly, an ever more ambitious and assertive China.

Yet while Mr. Biden has found key allies receptive, his first overseas trip as president has made another message clear.

Why We Wrote This

Joe Biden wants America to lead democracies in a global contest with autocracies like China. But many abroad have less faith than they once did in the health of America’s own democracy.

His task is not going to be easy.

That is largely because many foreign leaders and their citizens are skeptical about the health of America’s own democracy, unsettled by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January and the return to partisan warfare and legislative gridlock in Washington in the months since then.

Allied heads of government remain skittish over the possibility that a Trump-like “America first” populist, or even former President Donald Trump himself, might reclaim the White House next time around. And two new opinion surveys show how deeply international public skepticism about Washington runs.

Matt Dunham/AP
British newspapers, with front pages reporting on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, are displayed for sale outside a store in London, Jan. 7, 2021. Many foreign leaders and their citizens are skeptical about the health of American democracy.

Last week’s annual report on America’s standing in the world by the Pew Research Center drew attention to the recent meteoric improvement in global public sentiment about America and its president. Across the 16 nations polled, a median of 75% said they trusted Mr. Biden to “do the right thing” internationally – a leap from the 17% rating Mr. Trump garnered in 2020.

But beyond the support for Mr. Biden, the survey found far lower confidence in America’s democratic system itself.

A median of only 50% felt U.S. democracy was working well. Just 17% of those polled said America was setting a good example for democracies worldwide.

A broadly similar picture emerged from an opinion poll in 12 European countries carried out by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In only three nations – Italy, Hungary, and Poland – did more than half of respondents feel that America’s democratic government was working well. Elsewhere, most respondents judged U.S. democracy to be either somewhat or completely “broken.”

And Mr. Biden himself seems keenly aware that this is not just a public relations challenge.

If America is going to lead – much less win – a contest between democracies and autocracies, he knows that America and its allies are going to have to meet a critical practical test: to demonstrate that their system of government can actually meet the needs of their own people and those of the wider world.

Two related policy challenges are shaping up as key tests: climate change and a broad, 21st-century vision of infrastructure that includes clean energy and high-tech innovation as well as major brick-and-mortar projects.

Internationally, that’s intended as an explicit challenge, above all, to China.

On climate change, Mr. Biden hopes to encourage and spearhead the newly ambitious low-carbon targets that the G-7 nations have set when the world meets in Scotland later this year to follow up on the Paris climate accords. On infrastructure, he wants to create an alliance of advanced democracies that will provide poorer countries with the money and expertise they need for their development projects. That’s intended as an alternative to the nearly $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative China has put in place across Asia, the Mideast, Africa, and Latin America. 

But while he’ll have taken encouragement from his G-7 partners’ initial response, Mr. Biden knows that they’ll also be watching events in Washington when he returns later this week.

Both of the challenges he laid out at the G-7 are also on America’s domestic policy agenda, in the shape of his “American Jobs Plan,” a comprehensive infrastructure and green energy proposal with a price tag of around $2 trillion.

The president’s aspiration, when he unveiled it nearly two months ago, was that it would provide a homegrown showcase of how to tackle the tasks he has highlighted at the G-7 summit. It would be an example of how, despite the challenge in recent years from authoritarianism and strongman populism, democracies actually work best. That they can rise to the policy challenges of the 21st century and still do big things well. 

The problem, though, is that this is not how things are playing out at the moment. At least as things now stand, President Biden is struggling to rally bipartisan support for his vision in Congress, which is mired in gridlock. 

That raises a critical question. How can an American president convince the world that democratic governance can deliver effective and ambitious policy if he’s unable to make good on that promise at home?

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