EDITORIAL: Leader of the free world

Apr. 23—Joe Biden is no Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It is not Biden’s job to be the besieged hero president. But President Biden has to pick up the international responsibility tossed off by his predecessor. Biden must assert by his actions and his words that the American president is the leader of the free world.

The world’s democracies and would-be democracies are watching as Vladimir Putin grievously punishes Ukraine for refusing to belong to Russia. The same fate awaits the next country the Russian president wishes to annex, which he seems poised to do if Ukraine fails in its heroic resistance. He makes no secret of his scorn for the democratic form of government and his desire to see it wiped away. Putin yearns to re-establish the Soviet Union with himself as its leader.

If the course of international affairs is going to repeat the Cold War years, President Biden’s primary task is to champion democracy at home and abroad. Unless he can restore confidence in the strength and reliability of U.S. international leadership, the watching world will continue to wonder whether American government can be trusted to stay in the fight for democracy.

That other nations would doubt America’s defense of democracy is incredible, given our history, but they have been watching our internal affairs for the past five years. Biden must stand up for democracy on two fronts, domestic and international.

—The leader of the free world has to preside over a nation that models democracy for others. In the first year of the Biden administration the primary tasks were pandemic recovery and recharging the economy. Domestically, Joe Biden gave bipartisanship a try, but the downside of compromise is that it can look like weakness, giving an opening to an obstructive opposition. Nearly half of U.S. senators and most Republican House members have demonstrated little or no interest in bipartisan governance, fair voting practices or the truth about the Jan. 6, 2021 domestic assault on democracy.

—Fortunately, Biden speaks with frankness directly to the public. The president’s folksy, off-the-cuff comments stir a flurry of explainers from White House staff, but he is saying what most people think: Putin should be tried as a war criminal. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The Russian strategy in Ukraine is genocide. Straight talk is a mark of leadership that Americans value.

—Biden must ensure America honors its promises. His administration has a lot to make up for in that regard, not only because of the grim effects of the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan but because of unkept promises to other refugees. The United States has said it would take 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but not until Thursday did the administration announce its Uniting for Ukraine plan, which offers two years’ of safe refuge. Resettlement agencies welcomed the program as a way to get refugees into the country but noted what it doesn’t do. Even at full capacity it takes little of the burden of 5 million fleeing Ukrainians off allies such as Poland, who need to know that when Russian autocracy cause mass dislocation, western democracy will step up.

—The president needs to re-elevate American diplomacy to its previous status after the damage done by the past administration. It is his job to restore confidence among allies and respect among foes. European and NATO allies had serious reason to question the U.S. commitment after Donald Trump said he wanted to withdraw the country from the treaty organization that has been the bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. NATO nations’ pledge of mutual defense is more critical than it has been in several decades, and Biden must calm suspicions that the United States could waver again.

President Biden already knows he must take these crucial steps to defend democracy, but he needs to hear that a ringing mandate from the majority of Americans to pursue them. Even more, President Putin needs to hear it. Strong leadership on behalf of democracy depends upon the leader of the free world, but its source lies in the will of the people.

There must be no doubt among either the enemies or the friends of democracy that the United States leads in protecting the right of all people to govern themselves.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.