“Biden’s biggest worry: Can democracy prove it is worth saving?”

Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post, here, is absolutely right to recognize the centrality of this theme in President Biden’s Jan. 6th speech. As I have been saying, eg here and here, President Biden has recognized the historic challenge that is the defining mission of his presidency is ‘winning the “battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”’ This is the way Tumulty puts it:

What really preoccupies the president, however, was summed up in a quieter passage that came near the end of the speech, one that didn’t get as much notice. If there is a sweeping premise that defines what Biden views as the greatest challenge of his presidency, it is that the United States must disprove a growing cynicism about democracy itself — not just in this country, but around the world. Amid deep political polarization and an undermining of norms, the processes have become so messy and fraught that people are losing faith that democratic systems are still capable of functioning and of delivering results….

The president returns to the subject often, not just in the context of the assaults on democratic norms and institutions that escalated during the Trump era but also as he argues for the passage of his ambitious domestic agenda. Last June, for instance, when bipartisan negotiators reached agreement on a framework for a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package, he declared that it was about far more than roads and bridges and faster broadband: “This agreement signals to the world that we can function, deliver and do significant things. … It also signals to ourselves and to the world that American democracy can deliver.”

He made much the same point in December as he opened a virtual gathering of representatives of more than 100 countries that the White House billed as a “Summit for Democracy.” Biden warned of “dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs. In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time.”

It is also the defining challenge of the Biden presidency. Though Trump accelerated the crumbling of the guardrails that have protected democratic institutions — and so opened the way to the Jan. 6 attack — the problem did not begin with him. And while the system was strong enough to hold, the forces that have undermined it have not subsided. In marking the horrors of that day a year ago, Biden was right to remind us to keep our gaze high and our faces turned forward. The rest of the world is looking to this country as a test of whether democracy is worth salvaging.

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