President Joe Biden justified his broad vision to remake the U.S. economy as the necessary step to survive long-run competition with China, a foot race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver but that it can continue to out-innovate and outproduce the world’s most successful authoritarian state.
Biden’s rationale is not just a rallying cry, but part of his effort to lift his infrastructure and rebuilding plans to a higher, less partisan plane, much as John F. Kennedy did in his “we choose to go to the moon” speech nearly six decades ago. But it also carries an ideological edge, with Biden warning that America’s deep polarization and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol are playing to the autocrats’ arguments “that the sun is setting on American democracy.”
It is a compelling argument, one that ties his ambitious domestic agenda to his plan to restore American influence abroad. Yet the history of more recent efforts by U.S. presidents to revive that unifying national emotion is mixed at best; Barack Obama attempted it with his call to meet “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address 10 years ago. It fell flat.
A decade later, as Biden made clear in his speech to Congress on Wednesday night, challenge is even more complex.