My lunch with President Biden

Bush helped manage the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, without firing a shot or the loss of a single American life.
My lunch with President Biden
US President Joe Biden

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

President Biden invited me for lunch at the White House last Monday. But it was all off the record — so I can’t tell you anything he said. What I felt afterward was this: For all who say that Biden can’t put two sentences together, here’s a news flash: He just put NATO together, Europe together and the whole Western alliance together — stretching from Canada up to Finland and all the way to Japan — to help Ukraine protect its fledgling democracy from Vladimir Putin’s fascist assault. In doing so, he has enabled Ukraine to inflict significant losses on Russia’s invading army, thanks to a rapid deployment of U.S. and NATO trainers and massive transfers of precision weapons. And not a single American soldier was lost.

It has been the best performance of alliance management and consolidation since another president whom I covered and admired — who also was said to be incapable of putting two sentences together: George H.W. Bush. Bush helped manage the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, without firing a shot or the loss of a single American life. Alas, though, I left our lunch with a full stomach but a heavy heart.

Biden didn’t say it in so many words, but he didn’t have to. I could hear it between the lines: He’s worried that while he has reunited the West, he may not be able to reunite America. It’s clearly his priority, above any Build Back Better provision. And he knows that’s why he was elected — a majority of Americans worried that the country was coming apart at the seams and that this old war horse called Biden, with his bipartisan instincts, was the best person to knit us back together. It’s the reason he decided to run in the first place, because he knows that without some basic unity of purpose and willingness to compromise, nothing else is possible.

But with every passing day, every mass shooting, every racist dog whistle, every defund-the-police initiative, every nation-sundering Supreme Court ruling, every speaker run off a campus, every bogus claim of election fraud, I wonder if he can bring us back together. I wonder if it’s too late.

I fear that we’re going to break something very valuable very soon. And once we break it, it will be gone — and we may never be able to get it back. I am talking about our ability to transfer power peacefully and legitimately, an ability we have demonstrated since our founding. The peaceful, legitimate transfer of power is the keystone of American democracy. Break it, and none of our institutions will work for long, and we will be thrust into political and financial chaos. We are staring into that abyss right now. Because it is one thing to elect Donald Trump and proTrump candidates who want to restrict immigration, ban abortions, slash corporate taxes, pump more oil, curb sex education in schools and liberate citizens from mask mandates in a pandemic. Those are policies where there can be legitimate disagreement, which is the stuff of politics.

But the recent primaries and the investigations around the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol are revealing a movement by Trump and his supporters that is not propelled by any coherent set of policies, but rather by a gigantic lie — that Biden did not freely and fairly win a majority of Electoral College votes and therefore is an illegitimate president. Thus, their top priority is installing candidates whose primary allegiance is to Trump and his Big Lie — not to the Constitution. And they are more than hinting that in any close election in 2024 — or even ones that aren’t so close — they would be willing to depart from established constitutional rules and norms and award that election to Trump or other Republican candidates who didn’t actually garner the most votes. They are not whispering this platform. They are running for office on it. In short, we are seeing a national movement that is telling us publicly and loudly: We will go there. And that terrifies me because: I have been there.

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