This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
When President Joe Biden hosts the Summit for Democracy on Thursday, he will not do so as the leader of a beacon of democracy to which the rest of the world aspires. Instead, he’ll be fighting an uphill battle to reassert America’s democratic credentials before skeptical allies. After four years of Donald Trump undermining democratic norms, which culminated in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol—and roughly a decade of Republican efforts to strip voting rights away from poor, elderly, and minority voters—the United States is in no position to tell other countries to follow in our footsteps.
Now, as Biden takes the global stage once more, America’s credibility and moral authority are on the line. Just last month, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) included the United States on its list of “backsliding democracies,” citing the spread of disinformation, baseless allegations of electoral fraud, erosions of civil liberties, and voter suppression efforts that disproportionately hurt voters of color. Sadly, IDEA isn’t alone in its assessment. Earlier this year, Freedom House, the think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, identified a significant decline in U.S. democracy over the last decade.
It’s clear from President Biden’s own words that he understands what is at stake. In July, he told an audience in Philadelphia, “We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” He argued that America must prepare for “a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression and raw and sustained election subversion” in 2022. But, as President Biden approaches the end of his first year in the Oval Office, he has failed to address these threats to our democracy with action.
If President Biden wants to lead on strengthening democracies around the world, and restore America’s credibility and soft power globally, he must do more to get our house in order. He can begin by leveraging his 36 years of Senate experience and the enormous influence he wields as the President of the United States to push for change here at home and deliver on his campaign promise to “defend democracy” and “guarantee that every American’s vote is protected.”
President Biden must publicly call on the Senate to end the outdated filibuster that has allowed Senate Republicans to block legislation that the vast majority of Americans support—from establishing an independent January 6th Commission to passing critical voting rights legislation. The White House teased that the President would soon outline his stance on “fundamentally altering” the filibuster, but the issue has taken a backseat to other legislative pursuits. This is a missed opportunity. The President of the United States has the largest soapbox on the planet, and President Biden has unique credibility to push recalcitrant Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster and restore the Senate to a genuinely deliberative body capable of passing legislation by majority vote (though it goes without saying, there are a couple of Democrats in particular who are hamstringing not just filibuster-nixing efforts but also much of his legislative agenda, too). Then, Senate Democrats would be able to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the D.C. Statehood Act to ensure that every eligible citizen can access the ballot box.
President Biden should also rally Congress behind the Protecting Our Democracy Act (PODA), which includes provisions that have garnered bipartisan support in the past. This legislation would restore our constitutional checks and balances to ensure that no future president, regardless of party, is able to undermine our democracy by abusing the power of their office. PODA is expected to clear the House of Representatives this week, but its path through the Senate is uncertain. Surely, the endorsement of the President of the United States would highlight the critical importance of its passage into law.
Taking these simple actions ahead of the summit would demonstrate that President Biden’s commitment to democracy starts at home, and lend legitimacy to the U.S.’s efforts to champion democratic norms across the globe. The whole world will be watching to see if President Biden will meet this moment. Or if he allows American democracy to continue to erode on his watch.
Brett Edkins is the Managing Director of Policy & Political Affairs at Stand Up America. He oversees partner and coalition relations, and manages the organization’s political and policy strategy to pass progressive legislation and build a more representative democracy.
Before joining Stand Up America, Edkins served as communications director for Integrity First for America and several political campaigns, as a law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and as an aide to former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.