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


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President Biden paused last week, during one of the busiest stretches of his presidency, for a nearly two-hour private history lesson from a group of academics who raised alarms about the dire condition of democracy at home and abroad.

The conversation during a ferocious lightning storm on Aug. 4 unfolded as a sort of Socratic dialogue between the commander in chief and a select group of scholars, who painted the current moment as among the most perilous in modern history for democratic governance, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to describe a private meeting.

Comparisons were made to the years before 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 rising domestic sympathy for European fascism and resistance to the United States joining World War II.

The diversion was, for Biden, part of a regular effort to use outside experts, in private White House meetings, to help him work through his approach to multiple crises facing his presidency. Former president Bill Clinton spoke with Biden in May about how to navigate 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 before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

These meetings have come as Biden faces the isolation that is endemic to presidency, a problem that some Democrats say has been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, which restricted visitors through 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, at these tabletop sessions, often spends hours asking questions and testing assumptions, participants say.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. 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 get out of their bubble,” McFaul said. “I worked at the White House for three years before going to Moscow, and comparatively I think they do that in a much more strategic way than we used to do in the Obama administration. It feels that they are more engaged.”

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

Biden sat at the center of a dining table with the experts gathered at either end to keep the president a covid-safe six feet from the group. As some participants, including McFaul and Stavridis, appeared remotely on a screen, Biden began with brief comments and then spent about two hours asking questions.

“They really wanted outside-the-box thinking of, is there any way that this war, which will be horrible for everyone involved, can be stopped? Can we stop it? How can we stop it?” Bremmer said. “All of my interactions [with the White House] in the last few years have been uniformly open, constructive and really wanting to get my best sense of where they’re getting it right and where they’re not.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the president “values hearing from a wide range of experts.” NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said, “We are in regular touch with a diverse, bipartisan collection of experts and stakeholders on a variety of topics, including Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.”

At a news 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. “Seeking more…



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