Biden Lays His Cards Down About the Democracy-Autocracy Confrontation—At Home and Abroad

March 02, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: Gary Blakeley /
As he gave his State of the Union address last night, the stakes for President Joe Biden and the democratic free world were high.

He emphasized the need for unity of purpose and laid out the opportunity and challenges that lie ahead in a divided United States and less secure world.

Biden would have preferred to focus on economic growth, infrastructure spending, a fading pandemic, combating climate change, and his recent nominee to the Supreme Court. But it was Vladimir Putin’s war and the brave soldiers and citizens besieged in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and elsewhere in Ukraine that were top of mind for the president and for Congress, the nation, and the world.

There was no more emotional moment than when Democrats and Republicans rose together in support of Ukraine as Biden pointed to its ambassador, Oksana Markarova. It was a critical unifying moment and a sliver of needed bipartisanship, despite the clear embrace of Putin by Donald Trump and many of his supporters, including some in Congress.

Biden will need unity in the days ahead as collision with Russia for the United States and Europe looms larger, Putin’s siege of Ukraine intensifies, and calls from Ukrainians and others for greater intervention—including more sanctions, humanitarian assistance, and military action—reaches fever pitch. While announcing the closing of US airspace to Russian flights and more economic pressure, Biden chose not to have a direct conversation with the American people about what might come next as the United States and Europe grapple with Putin’s onslaught across Ukraine, likely millions of refugees, thousands killed, and a destabilizing spillover effect in Europe.

Biden did lay his cards on the table that, in an era of strategic confrontation, the free and democratic world must simultaneously fight a war for democracy and against the type of repression that led to the events on January 6 in the United States (including in the very spot he was speaking from) as well as tackle the conflict unfolding in Ukraine. He has spoken repeatedly about how neglecting democratic decline and allowing the rise of strongmen, like Putin, and corrupt actors willing to oppress and unwilling to address endemic challenges has come to a head.

Biden’s actions show he is the toughest opponent Putin has faced in two decades and he was clear about not backing down, but will his administration take steps in the coming days to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in Ukraine? This is not an enviable position for Biden, or for European leaders, given Putin’s willingness to sow death and destruction, even if he sacrifices thousands of Russian soldiers in the process.

Biden’s actions show he is the toughest opponent Putin has faced in two decades and he was clear about not backing down.

Biden also spoke about optimism, promise, and progress in his first year in office. He has restored the United States’ standing globally and rebuilt its alliances abroad. The dividends have been most visible with US partners in Europe and NATO. This has been especially true during the current crisis with historic policy shifts and heightened leadership. However, this is not a time for the administration and Europe to pat themselves on the back given the arc of the security crisis in Ukraine and deepened threats to NATO’s eastern flank and to EU member states.

At home, Biden has a harder task in rallying the country, with Trump and his minions seeking to unravel democracy and still making unfounded allegations of election fraud. Trump’s consistent praise of Putin, joined by others on the right, pulls Republicans away from acting against Russia’s aggression, especially as the midterm elections approach. The fate of both efforts by Biden will determine if the United States can be the critical partner needed by democracies in a multipolar world.

The democratic free world in an era of strategic competition needs a strong United States, as Biden pointed out, invested in building the rights coalitions and the right support at home and abroad to meet the most difficult challenges that need urgent attention. A United States that leads by example—as seen in Biden’s use of its diplomacy, military, and economic might in relation to Ukraine in the last three months—can be an engine to restore what has broken down over the last decade. The alternative scenario is a dystopian world forged by autocrats like Putin and like-minded leaders such as Trump. Biden was right when he said: “when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising.” The American public needs to heed this warning as it applies to actors all too willing to enable and support Putin and Trump.

Last night in the Capitol, Biden stood on the same ground as past presidents—Republican and Democrat—who fought for democracy and human rights and advocated for unity. But the outcomes are uncertain, including in Ukraine, and challenges ahead for Biden, including a lack of unity at home, can also serve as a tripwire derailing his administration’s efforts to defeat the autocracies that he says are “losing.”