The Doorstep: Grading the Biden/Harris "Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" with Mo Elleithee

Dec 16, 2021

The Biden/Harris team had big plans for re-engaging the U.S. with the world after four years of retrenchment under Trump. But the continuing pandemic, runaway inflation, and rising populism have upended the new administration's 2021 goals. Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown's Institute of Politics and Public Service, joins "Doorstep" co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to discuss what the Biden/Harris team gets right and how messaging can be improved ahead of 2022 mid-term elections to engage a disconnected electorate.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, with our final podcast of 2021. I can't believe it. What a year it has been.

Joining us today will be Mo Elleithee, the founding executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service, which he launched in 2015 after two decades as a communication strategist in the Democratic Party, working with people like Hillary Clinton. He is also a Fox News contributor, so he is fair and balanced in his approach to ideas, and we look so much forward to speaking with him about the state of foreign policy and its relation to domestic politics and how much the Biden-Harris administration has done or not done over this past year.

Before we get into our final podcast, Nick, I wanted to talk about something that really got my attention over the last two days, which is the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) report on the humanitarian crises around the world, which we have tried to bring to light with our podcasts on Afghanistan and Haiti, and yet somehow this global system failure is not resonating. I was really struck by David Miliband, the head of the IRC, saying that there are 55 civil wars brewing round the world. I just thought, My god. Later on in the podcast you'll hear Mo talk about the fact that a survey he recently took has Americans thinking that we are almost on the brink of civil war.

What are your thoughts first on this idea of all these civil wars brewing that we are not talking about? One, what is going on? And two, this idea of a global system failure, and why aren't we talking about Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen, which were, by the way, their top three countries that need help?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: To start with the question of global systemic failure, we are in a period of transition. The post-Cold War era is over. We are celebrating in a week the 30th anniversary of the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thirty years ago there was a great deal of optimism. We were on the verge of a "new world order," as then-President Bush put it.

We have kind of come to the end of that cycle. There have been some successes and some failures. I think something that Mo has been talking about is that it is no longer about left and right, it is about those who are at the front of the line and those who are at the back of the line, and I think a lot of this tension is due to the fact that people who have been at the back of the line don't think that they have a pathway to the front, that a rising tide will lift all boats, democracy will solve all of our problems, or globalization will solve all of our problems, so those tensions are there.

Plus, new technologies, disruptive technologies have changed in positive ways and negative ways how people communicate, how they work, and how they obtain a livelihood, but there is a lot of tension. Add to it the global pandemic, which again also was aided and abetted by globalization. How it spreads is very much due to the fact that we are an interconnected world in a way that we weren't even 30 years ago. All of this creates this tension that I think we're working our way through.

To this point about why the coverage and where is the interest, I think this also points to an end that there is fatigue. People are tired. They're exhausted. In countries like the United States it's a sense that, after decades of trying to improve places around the world, none of this works. This is the legacy of 20 years and billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan and then to leave Afghanistan the way we did in 2021 and then saying what we're going to fix or be able to find solutions to these other crises, I think what you're having—and it may sound callous, particularly at the holiday season, when we're encouraged to think about giving and compassion—is that people have reached a point to say: "These problems are perennial. They can't be solved, and so why even bother trying?"

Somalia. Again, 30 years ago, famine breaks out, this massive international humanitarian effort. Ethiopia, Christmastime, that was the whole "Do They Know It's Christmas?" time, which was 36 years ago, and now in 2021 Somalia, Ethiopia, these places are still on the list. "Well, maybe it's not worth it to try." That has implications, by the way, moving forward for humanitarian aid but also for the appetite people will have to go around and to try to help in these various places.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I hope that the future of our looking at these countries is not as cynical, and the IRC is really trying to bring this to light, and so hopefully we'll hear more about these countries and these issues and perhaps dedicate a podcast in 2022 to how humanitarian organizations are responding in this changing world. I think it's a really important topic.

You also made me feel really old with those references. Thanks a lot.

But who might step into the void if America is going to pull back? We just had a big meeting between Putin and Xi today, which has not gotten a lot of press but really struck me as so important and interesting because of this quote—I have to read it to you so I get it right.

Putin said: "A new model of cooperation has been formed between our countries based, among other things, on such principles as not interfering in each other's international affairs, respect for each other's interests, determination to turn the shared border into a belt of eternal peace and good neighborliness." Putin in 2021.

What do you think that was about? That is coming right after some pretty key moves. China is upset with the United States about not being invited to the Summit for Democracy, about the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics, and all of a sudden Putin and China are having a lovefest?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Again, 30 years ago the Soviet Union collapsed. The sense was the United States sat at the center of the international system. All roads would come to Washington. This was the era of the "end of history," where we were told that everyone was going to be on the same path towards liberal democracy and free-market economics, and now essentially Putin and Xi are saying—it is a bookmark to what happened 30 years ago—"Okay, that era is over. Not all roads lead to Washington. Washington doesn't necessarily have the tools to success."

Remember, it was the era of the "Washington consensus"—these are the policies countries were expected to do to become prosperous—and now it is a case of Russia and China saying, "We have an alternative," and saying to other countries: "If you don't like the United States or what they're doing, you now have an alternative. We have a model. We are going to do these things." It puts the United States in essence on notice that we are moving into a new era.

From a doorstep perspective, what is quite interesting is that in the Cold War there was a sense that the Soviet Union was an existential threat to the American way of life, that left to their devices, if they could, the Soviets would come into the United States, they would dismantle the political system, they would nationalize industries, they would take over, and that was what mobilized the doorstep.

Today if Americans look and say, "Well, all right, Russia, China working together, good neighborliness, Belt and Road, but if this means I'm still getting goods at Walmart and Dollar Tree and Costco and gas is at a decent price and I'm not worried about Chinese and Russian paratroopers coming into my hometown," is there going to be a similar reaction? It's an important question for us to keep looking at.

Certainly the policy establishment is worried about China. Americans may be worried about China but for different reasons, and it may not be that this really creates all that much a sense of angst if there is not a sense of how this might negatively impact us in our pocketbooks, at the gas pump, and in what we choose to buy as gifts for this holiday season.

TATIANA SERAFIN: To your point, Nick, we are going to be speaking with Mo about how domestic concerns and foreign policy concerns go together or not in a moment.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mo. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today and our audience about what were the most important news stories of 2021 and how they impacted our audience and everyday American citizens.

We are particularly interested in looking at the Biden-Harris "foreign policy for the middle class." What does that mean? Maybe if we could just take it from the top. You have so much experience in messaging. What do you think that really means on the ground, and how can we make people understand it better?

MO ELLEITHEE: First, thanks for having me.

I am going to take a step back because I think it's important to understand the moment we're in politically and then how that translates into the foreign policy.

I think we are in the midst of a global populist era. I think about populism a little bit differently than maybe others do. People are frustrated with institutions everywhere. They believe that institutions are failing them. In fact, I chastise my former colleagues who still work in politics who are trying to still have debates on this left-versus-right paradigm because I don't think that's where anybody else is. I don't think the paradigm is still left versus right. The real paradigm today in my opinion is front versus back, people who are at the front of the line versus those who feel like they are stuck at the back of the line and just can't get ahead.

These people who feel like they are at the back of the line are frustrated, they are angry, and they have lost trust in every major institution. If you were to poll Americans today on what institutions they trust, there are only two institutions that have a net positive trust rating, firefighters and the military. Everybody else is under water.

Understanding that and understanding that this moment has been 40, 50 years in the making, with people going back to the Watergate and Vietnam War era, increasingly losing faith in government, in Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the media, in academia, and in virtually every major institution, the Biden-Harris administration came in with a lot to do in the middle of a global pandemic, trying to reestablish America's footing on the global stage, and reengage in a way that sort of reasserted its leadership role, and an American public that didn't really care about what was happening overseas because they were so frustrated with what was happening here at home, and they saw a disconnect.

I think the Biden-Harris administration came in with this framing of a foreign policy for the middle class to try to make their foreign policy an extension of their domestic policy, to make their foreign policy as responsive to that concern that people have—"No one's looking out for me"—making sure that they understood that our reengagement on the global stage could benefit them in their day-to-day lives, which was people's biggest concern, that we were spending all this energy and time worrying about people overseas when we were struggling so much here at home. A lot of it was just a framing of why it was important to them.

Have they been successful? I think it's still a little too soon to tell. I think they've had some successes, and I think they have had some real challenges, which I'm sure we'll get into. I'm not convinced that nearly a year in, that the general public looks around and says: "Yes, I get it. Our foreign policy is going to help me in my day-to-day life." I don't think they are there yet. In some areas they might feel a little bit better, and in some areas they might feel a little bit worse, and that is something they are going to have to focus on moving forward.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just listening to your comments here, I have to ask whether or not Secretary of State Tony Blinken consulted you prior to his speech in Jakarta, because what you've just laid out here are some of the themes, listening to his speech at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Jakarta, where at several points he talks about "we want good jobs at good wages" and "our partnerships with our partners in the Indo-Pacific and with Europe will produce good-paying jobs at home."

He didn't necessarily use the front-and-back formulation directly, but he had a reference to that where he talked about "as we return to a globalized world of prosperity we must not forget those" and "not everyone is going to have their boat lifted by the tide, so we have to remember them."

To what extent do you see these themes at least rhetorically that you have laid out are in fact making their way through into policy documents and strategy documents as we move forward?

MO ELLEITHEE: I think both the Trump administration and the Biden administration are remarkably attuned to this as a global dynamic because it is a global dynamic, this front-versus-back reframing, this populist era. We have seen it in our politics for the better part of a decade. We have seen it in politics elsewhere. Look at Brexit in the United Kingdom. Look at the French elections. We can look at elections throughout Europe. We can look at them certainly in Latin America, where you have seen this dynamic play out to different ends.

The Trump administration saw it and used it to their political advantage to retreat, to focus us more inward. I think the Biden administration is taking it in the opposite direction. They get this dynamic just as much as the Trump administration did, but they see it as an opportunity to reassert America's leadership abroad.

The challenge is that the American people are not 100 percent there yet. We are very divided domestically about how much we want to be engaged overseas, what our role is overseas. Everyone wants America to be a leader, but they define that a little bit differently, and a significant portion of the country does believe we need to be more inwardly focused.

It's a tightrope for the administration to have to walk. They understand the importance of America's engagement abroad. They understand that this dynamic is everywhere, and we have to address it. But at the same time, they're facing some really challenging domestic political considerations that they are going to have to reckon with as they move forward.

TATIANA SERAFIN: To your point, talking about messaging, they might get it, it might be in their policy documents to have this assertive policy to reengage, but I think they're not selling it. There was this great Summit for Democracy. On paper it sounded fabulous, but the marketing, the branding didn't stick. It didn't stick with the younger generation that I work a lot with. I don't know what you both have heard, but it didn't resonate. It was a big Zoom screen of 130 countries, some suspect. I am going to call out one—the Philippines—invited to a summit on democracy when in fact who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year? Maria Ressa, who has been consistently fighting for freedom of the press and against oppression of the regime in the Philippines.

I think the messaging, the branding is not working because maybe they're trying to do too much. I don't know. I'm positing it out there for you two to comment on. What do you think, Mo?

MO ELLEITHEE: Look, I think you're right. That didn't stick for a number of reasons. One, again, is that consistent with a foreign policy for the middle class? Does the middle class sit around and think about what is the state of democracy abroad? Probably not.

Second, I think there are a lot of people in this country who are wondering how fragile democracy is here at home. We're still reeling from January 6. Do we still have the moral authority to be able to define the parameters of what makes a good democracy anymore?

We do polling out of our institute that tracks voter attitudes towards polarization, domestically focused. On a scale of 0–100, how badly do people see the polarization here in our country, with 0 being no polarization at all and 100 being brink of civil war? The mean response right now is 76. Americans believe we are three-quarters of the way to a civil war. So I agree with you. That Summit for Democracy may not have been the thing that really popped here.

Having said that, I do think there was a decent amount of excitement, at least in significant portions of our population, with our reengagement on climate and America's role in Glasgow and just once again taking on a leadership role. Is the messaging working? I think in some areas, sure. I think in other areas we have a ways to go.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to bring in the elephant in my room, which is China, because I think their messaging this year has been fantastic. The New York Times just did a big piece—"How Beijing Influences the Influencers" was the headline—speaking about their strength in promoting their consistent messaging of: "We're bringing prosperity to our people;" "It's great here;" "You"—the West—"are wrong to criticize us because look at your prison system, at your racism, at your persecution of Julian Assange;" "Who are you to be an exemplar of democracy—we just have a different great system?"

I am wondering what you think of our response to China and how that is resonating with the people that you are polling. Is the message that we need to do something about China there, or are people just happy to continue to buy from China because it's cheaper in an era where prices are totally out of control?

MO ELLEITHEE: I don't think those are mutually exclusive. I do think that the American people get that China is a threat, that it is from a security and from an economic perspective one of our greatest rivals, and that being tough on them is important.

At the same time, with inflation where it is, I don't think they want anything that is going to further drive prices up. I don't think the Trump administration's trade policies were particularly popular. Starting a trade war was not particularly popular.

I think people like to say, "Yes, we need to get tough on China," but what that means nobody really knows. They don't like the idea of another country surpassing the United States as a global leader, but how to deal with that? Most people have no idea.

The years 2020 and 2021 were great years for China; 2020 and 2021 in the United States were good years for China in their messaging for a lot of the things you just talked about: the racial unrest in the summer of 2020; the 2020 presidential election and the aftermath of that, culminating in January 6; and the relative numbers in COVID-19 cases in the two countries. Those three things right there gave China tremendous talking points.

And they were smart in how they went about it. I spoke to a number of political leaders and political operatives in Eastern Europe in early to mid-2021 who were telling us about the volume of vaccine China was sending into their countries, the vaccine diplomacy that they were doing. At a time when we were struggling to get Americans vaccinated, China was serving the rest of the world. They beat the United States to the punch in that. I think the United States has caught up and is getting a lot of its stuff out there, but China certainly saw the opportunity and seized on it, probably better than anybody else did.

What does that mean for our domestic politics? I don't know. Again, I don't think China is a vote motivator here in the United States. People just want to believe that their government is not going to let China beat us. But again, how many people know what that even means?

How it plays to the rest of the world, that is the dynamic to watch over the next decade: Does China begin to surpass us on the world stage in terms of how it approaches building alliances and partnerships? We'll have to see.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Vote motivators. That's a great way to frame our discussion I think. Is there any international issue that you do think might be a vote motivator as we go into midterms?

MO ELLEITHEE: COVID-19 and climate are probably the two biggest, and I would say trade. Those are probably the big three:

(1) COVID-19, just because we see it now. A lot of what is going to motivate people are the domestic dynamics, but as we have learned, we can't seal the border to the virus. We see a spike or a new variant emerging in South Africa, and suddenly we're talking about bringing back mask mandates or shutdowns here in the United States.

People are exhausted. You would think that if anything could unify and push through polarization, it would be tackling a global pandemic. It hasn't. It has only exacerbated some of our polarizations here in the United States. The only unifying piece is people's exhaustion with it. Even those who tend to identify as more progressive, who are more supportive of mandates, who are more supportive of some of the stricter measures, even those people are starting to get tired of dealing with it. How we respond both domestically and globally is going to impact how people—and the level of exhaustion people have could be a vote motivator.

(2) Climate could be a vote motivator for both sides of the political equation here in the United States. Eighty percent of the country, ballpark, believes that climate is a real problem but have very different visions on what can and should be done about it.

As the United States once again engages globally in this conversation after four years of sitting it out, I think young voters, who are the most motivated by climate politically, could be more engaged, but it's a different electorate that turns out in midterm elections than in presidential elections. The people who turn out in midterm elections are a little bit more nervous, particularly in an era of economic anxiety and inflation. If they see us taking measures that could further drive up prices or threaten certain industries that aren't just about jobs but are about a way of life for many Americans, it could motivate on either side.

(3) Trade and general global economic issues and how that impacts some of the other things we were talking about. If our trade engagement ends up leading into further tensions with China and prices continue to go up or if other global economic factors drive prices up, that is going to create a very, very, very challenging dynamic for Democrats heading into the midterms.

I think those are the three. When you think about it, all three of those play right into the framing that we began this conversation with—foreign policy for the middle class. Those are all three issues that impact me at my kitchen table, impact me in my home, and impact me at my job far more than some of the more bigger-picture issues that tend to dominate some headlines.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That leads me then to a comment and question from my end. We have talked about this narrative framing of foreign policy for the middle class, and yet two things: One is that it doesn't seem that the memo has really gotten through to the national security community, which still likes to view foreign policy as the grand chessboard, and we're moving pieces around the globe and not really worrying as much about the domestic implications; and then the other, as you were going through the three issues, I couldn't help but hear in those three issues that we have some profound policy tensions there that contradict each other. We saw this with the Biden administration, Biden-Harris goes to Glasgow and a very forward-looking climate agenda, and then he turns around and says we need to release oil from the Reserve and we need the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce more oil to bring gas prices down.

China is a threat. We look at the potential for conflict over Taiwan, and yet American liquefied natural gas shippers are sending record amounts of natural gas to China and we continue to purchase large amounts of consumer goods from China.

Two points, first that the foreign policy community, do you think they have gotten the memo that "Really you have to think about what a foreign policy for the middle class looks like?" And second, it does seem that some of these contradictions can't really be ironed out by a good public relations campaign. Finding a good slogan isn't going to get around the fact that with climate, trade, and COVID-19, you have some real issues where choices will have to be made, and it's not a question of coming up with a slogan but in fact making those choices and sticking with them.

What are you seeing in terms of how this discussion is shaping up?

MO ELLEITHEE: I don't disagree. Look, we are still in the midst of a global crisis. In times of crisis you have to oftentimes compromise on your own values and your own agenda as a political leader, and it's not always to everyone's good. It's not always to everyone's benefit. But if you look throughout history, we have made some pretty tough choices that were antithetical to what the stated objective, the stated goal, the stated policy plan was.

I think that is sort of where we are right now. This is a president who during his transition announced that climate was going to be a "whole-of-government issue," that every single agency, every single department was going to be focused on climate, that reestablishing our leadership on this issue was going to be a top, top agenda, and we were going to have some pretty strict plans in place in order to begin to get us back on track.

But in the middle of a global health crisis that has led to a global economic crisis and inflation on the rise, did he have a choice but to open up the Oil Reserve? None of this matters if he's a one-term president and suddenly another Republican comes in who starts to pull back even further, who goes back to the Trump position on climate.

If gas prices don't come down, the likelihood is much higher that he is a one-term president. So there are going to be some tradeoffs, and now we're one step back in order to take the two steps forward down the road. I am sure that's what they are thinking.

So, yes, I think there are going to be inherent tensions that the current moment we live in are driving. You can't divorce the politics from the foreign policy. You just can't, particularly in a moment of crisis.

To your other question, is the national security establishment getting it? I don't think any establishment gets it. Again, our establishments generally, and not just government, not just this administration, are still living in some old-school paradigm that is not the reality today.

I give credit to the last two presidents for trying to reorient the conversation—in very different ways. I don't think the last president did it in a particularly productive way. I think he did it in a harmful way, but he at least began to reorient the conversation away from some of the old paradigms because those old paradigms are why people have lost faith. We are not talking to them. We are not talking about them.

We are talking about a global chessboard, and while I get it—some of my old Georgetown international relations education stuck with me—but people aren't there, and we are just in a different era in terms of public engagement in these things. In a world that is now so much more hyperconnected and with a media ecosystem that is so much more polarized, how people internalize information, how they translate that information to their real worlds, and how that manifests itself in their political activity counts for something, probably much more than it ever has in the past. So taking it away from the grand chessboard and bringing it—or at least moving the chessboard to people's kitchen tables—is important.

TATIANA SERAFIN: As you are talking about moving chessboards to people's kitchen tables, I can't help but think we have to utilize social media better. For all the faults of social media and the media ecosystem currently, it's also operating on an old paradigm. Old institutions are still thinking that people are reading and going beyond the paywall.

A lot of my young students stop reading because there is a paywall, and that is bad because then they're not getting information, and they are getting information from—I am going to go back to my TikTok influencer statement and how China is able to utilize them and how the old paradigms aren't allowing us to access people where they are, and frankly they are on TikTok, they are on Instagram.

I think even the foreign policy community needs to better engage with these social media tools where every person, from grandma to your 11-year-old is on social media, getting information, assimilating information, thinking that they know everything, and I think that some more needs to be done on that front.

I wonder how much you have looked at the media. I hate saying "the media" because it's this monolith. It's not a monolith. But what can the media do better to help with messaging? Any recommendations on your end from what you see?

MO ELLEITHEE: What can it do better? Everything. I kind of feel like we almost need to rethink the whole model because it has changed.

You are right. It is not a monolith. Yet we kind of romanticize this. There was a small blip in our history where it was, with the beginning of television news, and we had these three networks and three anchors who every day would just kind of tell us what the world looked like, and then we could use that as a starting point for discussion. That was a small blip in our history. Before television our media was very polarized. It was all print. New York City had seven different newspapers, and you knew someone's politics by which one they bought.

After the first couple of decades of television we started to find new ways to get back to that, first with talk radio, then with cable news, and now with the Internet. So we're not having unified conversations anymore. That's the first problem. We're not having unified conversations. If I am watching one network, I am seeing one reality. If I'm watching another, I am seeing another, and that's doing a disservice. So that's number one.

Number two is that social media was supposed to be this great democratization of media, giving everyone a voice, giving everyone a chance to be a citizen journalist, and we have seen some benefit. We have seen where that has played out. The Arab Spring in many ways was driven by citizen journalists who were able to show the world what we couldn't see before in real ways.

But it has also allowed for greater polarization, algorithmic-driven polarization, where I don't even have a choice sometimes to see a different perspective because the algorithms are just pushing the same ones in front of me, and perhaps one of the greatest threats we face today, and that is the rise of misinformation and disinformation, some of which is state-sponsored.

The misinformation/disinformation piece is real. It is I think one of the greatest threats to democracies everywhere, and one that we have no idea how to tackle. Maybe your next guest will have a better idea. Maybe you can find someone who can come in and solve that problem for us.

But I do think you're right that government actors—outside of China—are not very good at this and that there are lessons that can be learned from China, not from Russia. We don't need to be going down the misinformation/disinformation route the way they do, which is one of the most sophisticated ones in the world.

There are opportunities to use social media, take the conversation to where people are, using voices that are relevant to them, but that requires thinking about it differently. Too many places are using Twitter and Instagram as just a new medium to post their old press releases, and they think they're winning, not understanding that it is a different way to have the conversation.

There are some media platforms that are getting very good and creative at this. Snapchat has a whole news division, which is very good at taking the news of the day and making it relevant to their younger viewers, and more young viewers watch Snapchat than watch any of the cable networks combined, and they do it differently.

I will say that the Biden campaign was pretty good at this and the Biden White House is pretty good at it relative to previous administrations maybe. Trump was a unique player in this because of how everyone followed his Twitter feed obsessively, but outside of that he wasn't very good at it. He wasn't utilizing all the different tools and technologies and reorienting the conversation.

I think that there is a huge opportunity. The people who run the Biden digital shop get that, but they just move slower. We here move slower, and there is a lot of opportunity there.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you for that. I think that is a great note to end on. We need to move faster into 2022.

Thank you so much for your time today and your ideas. You have given us a lot to think about and a lot to review as we end 2021.

MO ELLEITHEE: Thanks for having me.

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