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 spoke on the condition of 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 input, more information, more constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn’t be doing,” he told reporters.
Some meetings have been more exclusive. At a private lunch with Biden on May 2, Clinton praised his successor’s efforts to build a multinational coalition supporting Ukraine.
But he also urged Biden to lean into speaking about his administration’s efforts to battle inflation, with the expectation that price pressures would ease in the weeks before the midterm elections, according to people briefed on the exchange. Clinton suggested that Biden position himself to take credit for inflation reductions, if they come.
Clinton also urged Biden to create a sharp policy contrast with Republicans, latching especially onto the policy proposals of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had proposed a five-year sunset on all federal laws, including Social Security and Medicare, and tax increases on many Americans who are not working.
As it happened, the White House was already planning a similar contrast, and days later Biden publicly laid into what he called the “ultra MAGA agenda,” a reference to the “Make America Great Again” movement that is organized around former president Donald Trump.
The historians Biden has invited to the White House generally take a longer view, placing his presidency in the context of America’s path since its founding. Biden — who is 79 and has seen nine presidents up close, starting with Richard M. Nixon — has signaled that he has thought about what makes some presidencies more successful than others.
The group that gathered in the White House Map Room last week was part of a regular effort by presidential historians to brief presidents, a practice that dates at least as far back as the Reagan administration. Obama convened such groups multiple times, though the sessions fell out of favor under Trump.
Following a similar meeting with Biden last spring, the Aug. 4 gathering was distinguished by its relatively small size and the focus of the participants on the rise of totalitarianism around the world and the threat to democracy at home. They included Biden’s occasional speechwriter Jon Meacham, journalist Anne Applebaum, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, University of Virginia historian Allida Black and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. White House senior adviser Anita Dunn and head speechwriter Vinay Reddy also sat at the table.
Biden, who was still testing positive for the coronavirus, appeared on a television monitor that was set up next to the room’s fireplace, taking notes as he sat two floors up in the Treaty Room that is part of the White House residence. Senior adviser Mike Donilon also appeared on-screen, say people familiar with the events.
During the discussion, a loud crack of thunder could be heard, which the participants later found out coincided with a lightning strike that killed three people in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
One person familiar with the exchange said the conversation was mostly a way for Biden to hear and think about the larger context in which his tenure is unfolding. He did not make any major pronouncements or discuss his plans for the future.
“A lot of the conversation was about the larger context of the contest between democratic values and institutions and the trends toward autocracy globally,” the person said.
Most of the experts in attendance have been outspoken in recent months about the threat they see to the American democratic project, after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the continued denial by some Republicans of the 2020 election results and the efforts of election deniers to seek state office.
Applebaum, a contributor to the Atlantic, recently published a book on eroding democratic norms called “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” Black, a longtime adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was recently named to the board of Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy, which aims to reduce political polarization.
Beschloss, a presidential historian who regularly appears on NBC and MSNBC, has recently become more outspoken about what he sees as the need for Biden to battle anti-democratic forces in the country.
“I think he has got to talk tonight about the fact that we are all in existential danger of having our democracy and democracies around the world destroyed,” Beschloss said in March on MSNBC, before Biden delivered the State of the Union address.
Wilentz, prizewinning author of “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” has also voiced alarm in recent months about the state of the country. “We’re on the verge of what Hamilton in ‘The Federalist’ called government by brute force,” Wilentz told the Hill last month.
Some of last week’s discussion focused on similarities between today’s landscape and the period leading up to World War II, when growing authoritarianism abroad found its disturbing echo in the United States.
As Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini consolidated their power in the 1930s, the Rev. Charles Coughlin used his radio broadcast to spread a populist anti-Semitic message in the United States. Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) also rallied Americans against Roosevelt and showed sympathies for dictatorial government.
Concerns about anti-democratic trends have long animated Biden, who began his 2020 campaign by arguing that a “battle for the soul of the nation” was underway, a play on the phrase used by Meacham to title his 2018 book “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”
Democrats broadly expect the same ideas will anchor Biden’s reelection campaign, if he decides to move forward with one, especially if Trump is his opponent again.
Biden has continued to bring up such themes in his public speeches, most recently in a July address to a law enforcement group, where he criticized Trump for taking no immediate action as the rioters he had inspired attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to overturn the results of the recent presidential election.
“You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” Biden told the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.”