U.S. President Joe Biden entered office facing daunting challenges to democracy at home and abroad. Freedom House estimates that three out of four people worldwide now live in countries that are less democratic than they were a year ago, while the Variety of Democracies Index assesses that over one third of the world’s citizens are living in autocratizing nations. The trends include some of the world’s most prominent democracies, such as India and the United States, where former president Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize and overturn the 2020 presidential election results culminated in the shocking January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and deeply shook confidence in the strength of U.S. democratic processes and institutions.
These interrelated threats to democratic systems at home and around the world make it plain that the new administration’s democracy policy must knit together a global agenda with domestic reforms. But while support for democracy has always been a bipartisan centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, a domestic democracy agenda is bound to be politically fraught. Can Biden address the United States’ yawning credibility gap as a global leader on democracy?
Tackling Domestic Extremism
In his first 100 days, Biden has prioritized three areas of domestic democracy policy. First, even as the investigations of the Capitol attack have continued apace, Biden has also focused on efforts to address the rise of domestic extremism in the United States. On his second day in office, the White House announced an interagency plan to combat domestic terrorism, leading to an intelligence assessment and new funding for state and local authorities to pursue domestic extremist groups. The Department of Defense also conducted military and civilian stand-downs—discussions about race, values, and how to report relevant misconduct—to address extremism in the country’s military ranks.
Advancing Equity and Inclusion in Public Policy
Second, Biden has made clear that he does not view extremism as the only vulnerability of U.S. democracy. In light of the inequity and injustice exposed by the pandemic and the racial justice protests, Biden has made racial equity the centerpiece of a more inclusive public policy agenda. An executive order on advancing racial equity will now ensure that equity considerations will be integrated across government policies and programs. The Department of Transportation has begun to apply the new policy, pausing the expansion of a highway in Texas that would displace a historically Black and Hispanic community and destroy schools, homes, businesses, and houses of worship.
In addition, Biden has acknowledged the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color by embedding equity elements into the COVID-19 stimulus bill, including loan assistance for farmers and ranchers who have experienced discrimination. He likewise established a Health Equity Task Force and created a senior position in the White House to focus on addressing racial inequity in healthcare, the first such position of its kind.
Protecting the Right to Vote
Finally, Biden has forcefully asserted the need to protect voting rights, human rights, and labor rights at home, including by offering unprecedented support for a failed worker campaign to unionize an Amazon plant in Alabama. As the union defeat demonstrates, executive power to enact sweeping domestic democracy reform faces both political headwinds and the constraints of federalism. For example, Biden has spoken out against restrictive voting measures and directed federal agencies within his control to expand voter registration and participation. But comprehensive voting rights legislation, along with other relevant measures like campaign finance reform, are unlikely to easily pass in the Senate. Despite Biden’s efforts, forty-three states have proposed new voting laws restricting access to voting by mail, early voting, and voting on Election Day.
Similarly, Biden has strongly condemned anti-Asian hate speech and violence. However, few such attackers have been charged and prosecuted for hate crimes, decisions that are made at the state level. This may soon change with the recent bipartisan approval of anti-Asian hate crime legislation in the Senate, but further demonstrates that Biden’s options for other national level democracy reforms will be limited without a viable legislative path forward in Congress.
Not the Time to Retreat on Global Democracy
As democracy recedes around the world, the United States cannot afford to wait to get its own house in order before resuming its previous role as a major supporter of democracy internationally. Soon after taking office, Biden confronted multiple major democracy crises abroad: the military coup in Myanmar, the Russian government’s arrest of political dissident Alexei Navalny, China’s further repression of the Hong Kong democracy movement, and Belarus’s continued suppression of protests following last year’s stolen election. Determined to show he means business in standing up for democracy globally, Biden acted quickly and decisively with a mix of public messaging and private diplomacy, as well as punitive measures such as sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans.
The Biden team is acutely aware of the need to connect reforming democracy at home with reestablishing the United States as a force for democracy abroad. The administration wants to make clear to the world that the United States will not be stymied by its own travails in standing staunchly in support of democratic forces, especially to counter the influence of autocracies like China and Russia. At the same time, Biden recognizes that rhetoric championing human rights and democratic freedoms on the global stage must be matched by action at home.
Executing dual democracy strategies will be challenging. Presidents have wide latitude for executive action on foreign policy. But Biden’s room to maneuver and push through major domestic reforms in the face of determined Republican opposition are far more limited. Yet the opportunity is enormous—the chance to create a U.S. democracy policy that speaks to the needs and interests of a domestic and a global audience simultaneously. Whether Biden can meet this moment will likely be a defining sign of the ultimate success of his presidency.