9. Reclaiming America | Crooked Media
Pod Save America Live NYC & Boston guest hosts just announced! Get Tickets Pod Save America Live NYC & Boston guest hosts just announced! Get Tickets
October 06, 2020
Missing America
9. Reclaiming America

In This Episode

What would a Biden Administration do to re-establish American leadership?

In a wide-ranging interview, host Ben Rhodes talks to Jake Sullivan, senior policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, about how the US can begin the work of restoring our standing and addressing the political plagues discussed in this podcast series.






BEN (V.O.):  It was fall two-thousand-nine. And just a few months into his Presidency… Barack Obama asked the military and his cabinet for a review of the War in Afghanistan.  




Seven years into the war, Obama wanted to step back and get a slate of options for what to do next. What was our objective? What was achievable? What resources were needed – military, diplomatic, assistance?


No matter where the discussion went, the military came back with basically *one* option.  


More troops. 


ARCHIVE: CBS REPORTER: Sources tell CBS News that General Stanley Mcchrystal’s strong recommendation to the President is for 40,000 additional troops for Afghanistan — on top of the 65,000 already there. 


In fact — McChrystal said — the only choice was between putting in all of those troops… or almost certain failure.  


Key advisors quickly agreed. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When Obama tried to take a second to assess whether a troop surge of that size really made sense? He got hammered by Republicans and the media as… “indecisive”….”dithering” 


I remember sitting through nine tense Situation Room meetings — 2 to 3 hours each — as the hawks at the table made the same arguments for an open-ended surge, over and over. 


There was only one person there who thought it was a bad idea, and said so, over and over. 




It was Joe Biden. 


[ARCHIVE: CBS REPORTER: Among those at today’s war council meeting, sources say…Vice President Joe Biden opposes his request]


Biden would take in the Generals’ power point presentations. Then he’d bluntly tell them the American people were sick of war. That we could never send enough troops to achieve what the Generals were arguing for. That Afghan President Hamid Karzai was corrupt, in part because of the money we were pouring into the country. That we needed to set objectives that were achievable…which didn’t require 40,000 troops trying to pacify the entire country.  


As a senator, like many in that room, he’d initially supported the war, as well as the war in Iraq.  *Unlike* them… he’d learned his lesson.  He understood that there were limits to what the military should be asked to achieve inside of other countries, and that we had other priorities that would suffer if we escalated the war in Afghanistan. . 


The military was focused on the risk of inaction. Biden was focused on the risks of action. 




The brass got their way, though Obama did scale back their surge. That year we committed 30 thousand more troops to Afghanistan.  


Looking back now?


Joe Biden was more prescient than the Generals. 




I’m Ben Rhodes, and welcome to the final episode of Missing America.  


We’ve spent this series looking at the political diseases sweeping across the world in the absence of American leadership: nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, disinformation and climate change.


I think we can agree… it’s not a pretty picture.  Under Trump, democracy itself is slipping away, while cooperation on issues like fighting pandemics and climate change has been shattered. And a lot of people are suffering because of it – in America and around the world. 


But today, we’re gonna look ahead.  At how a Biden Administration will pick up the pieces of America’s shattered credibility.


You’ll hear my wide-ranging conversation with Jake Sullivan. He was *Vice* President Joe Biden’s top national security aide.  And he’s Presidential *candidate* Joe Biden’s senior policy advisor.


With him, we’ll paint a picture of an America the world can count on again — an America that starts fixing what’s broken at home, and engages with the world in a way *we* can be proud of.   


JAKE: Joe Biden would think about using the office of the presidency to achieve something more than just policy — to achieve a kind of greater sense of revitalization in our democracy. 


One last look at the global crises we face… and how to start fixing them, starting inauguration day, Twenty-Twenty-One.  On this episode of Missing America.


—- MIDROLL ADVERTISEMENTS: Cariuma and Blinkist  —-






I first met Jake Sullivan in Two thousand eight, in Asheville, North Carolina. The Obama campaign had set up camp there, to get Obama prepped for his debate with John McCain.  


It basically consisted of two rooms: A windowless office where people assembled giant binders full of questions and answers on every possible topic. 


And a full replica of the stage where Obama tested them out in mock debates. 


Jake Sullivan?  Was the guy in the room with the binders. Typing up answers. Tweaking them endlessly based on what happened on stage.  He never left that office, and rarely took his eyes off his laptop. For days.  


That’s Jake. A guy who does the work…and who has been willing to question his own assumptions. 


Over the last twelve years, we’ve become close friends as the world around us changed. But one thing hasn’t changed: when I spoke to Jake last month, he was getting ready to prep *another* Presidential candidate — Joe Biden — for *his* debates.


I asked him to try to put into words how different it feels to be waging a Presidential campaign now…




…compared to then.


JAKE: Well, there are some kind of interesting similarities in that in 2008, we really believed that we needed to rescue American foreign policy, that we had to rescue our standing in the world and who we were as a country and what we stood for, and that Barack Obama’s election was going to herald a new day for the United States on the global stage. I think we didn’t quite recognize that things could get even worse (LAUGHS). 


It seemed like eight years of George W. Bush was going to be a nadir, and Barack Obama was going to put us inexorably on a different and better path. So there’s that aspect. 


But I think what’s most different is just how Donald Trump has made us return to basics in American foreign policy. To: what are the value of alliances? To: what are the core principles upon which our country was built and what we want to represent in the world? To: the value of diplomacy as a concept. To: the value of democracy as a concept. To, you know, actually explaining to people why it matters that we shouldn’t just go around submitting to dictators and trashing our friends. I mean, these are things that just, at a really elemental level, Donald Trump has made us revisit. And frankly, in a funny way, we- I think we’d gotten a little lazy. We’d just kind of taken them all for granted. 


BEN: Yeah.


JAKE: So for like a couple of years of the Trump Administration, we would sort of splutter our way through the absurdity of his approach on alliances or democracy or values or institutions or diplomacy. And it took us a while to sharpen up once again the case that we had to be able to make to the American people about why these things really mattered. And I think we’re in a position to win that debate with Donald Trump in the closing weeks of this election. 


BEN: So if you look forward, I mean, one of those basics is democracy. And one of things we look at on this series is the challenges to democracy around the world. And I’m going to focus on a couple. First, you know, really in Europe — but it’s not limited to Europe — this particular form of nationalism that blends with authoritarianism that we’ve seen in Hungary, you see elements of it in the U.K., you see it in Poland. And obviously, this is rippled out to other countries. What do you do about that trend — If Joe Biden is elected, what does he do to try to reverse some of the sense of momentum in global politics, away from this kind of authoritarian form of nationalism to to kind of a new era of momentum for democracy? 




JAKE: Well, I think that there are at least four basic ingredients. There are probably like eleven — but four really stand out to me.


The first is democracy has to do a better job of materially delivering for people. It has to improve their way of life to a greater extent than it has for the past 40, 50 years where you’ve seen wages stagnate, rising income inequality, greater corporate concentration. And just the lived experience of people in the United States and frankly, in many advanced democratic market economies around the world has not, um, advanced in the way that things have for those at the very top. So that’s one really important part of it. 


The second piece is a little more ineffable, and that has to do with respect and dignity. I think in general, our political leadership, but more broadly, what one might call the elites in Europe and the United States, I think have to take a hard look in the mirror about the extent to which they have not conveyed a sense of deep respect and honor and dignity to folks who feel like they’ve been cut out or haven’t been given a fair shake. And Joe Biden himself is extremely attentive to this. 


[ARCHIVAL: JOE BIDEN – A job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about dignity, it’s about respect. It’s about your place in the community. It’s about being able to look your kids in the eye and say “Honey, it’s gonna be alright.” The dignity of work. What you do matters. You matter.]


JAKE: This is something that lies at the core of how he’s thought about politics for 40 years. So I think he’ll be a uniquely capable kind of leader. But younger political leaders who can tell those who might trend towards the authoritarian line, who can tell them, “I see you. I respect you. I, you know, want to listen to you.” That is going to make a big difference. 


The third piece is to be unapologetic about pluralism. I mean, there is an identitarian, xenophobic, kind of racist undercurrent to some of this. That does exist on both sides of the Atlantic. And I think here we have to give no quarter.    Showing respect and treating people with dignity, yes — but also aggressively asserting the value and importance of pluralism. 


And then finally, there’s the threat from without. I mean, there is the pressure on our societies from Russia and other countries who want to weaken, divide and distract us and prey upon our existing divisions and vulnerabilities. And we have to be much more resolute and resilient in pushing it back against those things. 




So there’s a lot else to say, but… I think that captures the way Joe Biden would think about using the office of the presidency to achieve something more than just policy, to achieve a kind of greater sense of revitalization in our democracy. 


BEN: And just one follow up: ’cause I notice this idea that he’s put forward of having kind of a Summit of Democracies. Some of that’s just about practically restoring effective alliances, but is some of that about trying to create a sense of the democracies regrouping and and more unabashedly embracing values in our approach to international relations? 


JAKE: So the idea the Vice President has in proposing this idea of a Summit of Democracies, is that there is both a strong signal-value in that — sending a message to the world that that we like-minded democracies are pulling together to defend our perspective, our way of life, our institutions, our model. But also, we’re pulling together to take a hard look at how we can refurbish and rehabilitate it in important ways.


And that goes for some of the broader themes that I’ve talked about: economic inclusion, pluralism, respect, dignity and so forth. But it also goes for very tangible issues. Like how do we deal with technology? How do we deal with issues related to trade and international economic policy? Corporate concentration? How do we deal with the fact that you’ve got young people who, you know, look at democratic systems and worry that they’re just not up to the job of the great challenges of our future, whether it’s climate change or racism or what have you. 


So for him, at the end of the day, it’s both a really important statement of principle to the world and a practical forum to solve very real world problems.


BEN: So one of the issues that obviously might come up there, right, is China. And I wanted to ask you specifically about, you know, less any one geopolitical issue, but more this idea that the Chinese have a model that is gaining traction around the world, a model that they’re more aggressively and assertively imposing on places like Hong Kong. 


[ARCHIVAL: HONG KONG: “This was the moment China tightened its grip on Hong Kong….under the national security law, many of the acts of protests that have rocked Hong Kong over the past year could now be punished with up to life in prison.”]


BEN: In the period of time of a presidency — four years or eight years, you know — what is the most important thing to do to– to push back on that?


JAKE: So they say in real estate that the three most important factors are location, location, location? I think when it comes to China, the three most important factors are domestic renewal, domestic renewal and domestic renewal. How we reinforce our own foundation, invest in our education and infrastructure and innovation and immigration system — how we invest in our democracy and our democratic system — That will be paramount in putting us in a position where we can effectively compete with China from a position of strength. And that is a huge task. And it means, at the end of the day, that domestic policy is foreign policy for the purpose of the next President of the United States. 


Now, some other things matter as well. Starting with alliances. Frankly, we are going to be able to deal with China much more effectively if we are rallying like-minded democracies that represent well more than half the world’s economy with us to challenge China on its abuses, but also to bring China along where we need to be able to work with them on things like climate change or global health and the like. 


And then on the values point, I think that goes hand-in-hand with domestic renewal, because it’s hard for us to make claims for justice abroad if we’re not dealing with injustice at home. But…




…it does require a clarion, consistent voice of speaking out on issues like the Uighers in Xinjiang or the repression in Hong Kong. And we’ve seen from the current president exactly the opposite; encouraging Xi Jinping to do as he’s doing. And Joe Biden would be the kind of president who would speak out with a very clear voice on those things. 


BEN VO: In fact, Biden already has. Here he is in May, after China announced sweeping new laws that would give it control over Hong Kong. How would Biden deal with the situation as President?


CNBC ARCHIVE: BIDEN: I’d be at the UN with my UN Ambassador, and I’d be insisting and calling out — which the United states has always done — an overwhelming violation not only an agreement, but of human rights. 


Listeners of this show know that’s a far cry from *Trump’s* tune, when the Hong Kong protests *first* broke out and America’s voice could’ve made a difference.


FOX & FRIENDS ARCHIVE: TRUMP: Well, I tell you, look, we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine, he’s an incredible guy, ah, we have to stand, but I’d like to see them work it out, okay? 


That weak signal to the world was followed by months of inaction by the White House, while the city’s protestors were getting tear-gassed in the streets. Biden had something to say about that, too:


CNBC ARCHIVE: BIDEN: (:33) The silence on our part has been devastating to people around the world.  All it does is encourage thugs and dictators, which in fact I think the President has some kind of affinity for.   


And yet… if you do a search on Youtube for “Joe Biden” and “Hong Kong Protests?”  What you’ll find is video after video, and comment after comment, spreading outright falsehoods about Biden.  Portraying *him* as some sort of pawn of President Xi.


Never mind the fact that it’s *Trump* who called China’s leader “an incredible guy” live on Fox News, and praised his transparency around the coronavirus after China tried to cover up the lethality of the disease. 


It’s further evidence of something else we’ve talked about on this series: Disinformation.  Social media deployed to spread conspiracy theories and to sow division.  Like everything else we’ve talked about on this show, it’s a problem that won’t just vanish once Joe Biden is President. 


In fact, with right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon only ramping up their reach… 


…things could get much worse.




I asked Jake what, exactly, a Biden Administration can do about *that*.


JAKE: I don’t have a perfect answer to this question. I think it’s one of the most difficult things facing us right now. But I think there are three basic buckets of activity that the next president will have to pursue. The first does go straight to regulation. And frankly, Joe Biden has been quite forward-leaning about his view that social media platforms need to be regulated to a greater extent. He’s talked about getting rid of what’s called Section 230 of the Communications Act, which provides, essentially, immunity to the Facebooks of the world for whatever is published on their site, and imposes some– if you repealed it, it would impose some responsibility on them to police that. So that’s point one. 


Second has to do with dealing with the larger issue of state-sponsored disinformation. And it’s not just Russia. Other countries are in the game, and I think increasingly will be getting into the game as this whole issue of disinformation becomes a national security weapon, a la missiles or cyber or what have you. And so having an effective system of deterrence and imposing costs and making clear to the rest of world that there will be a real price to pay for systematic efforts to interfere in the American democratic discourse — that’s got to be an important part of what the next president does. 


And then third… this is the more nebulous, but probably — of the three — most important category, and it’s the one I have the least kind of clear shape around. It has to do with finding ways to increasingly educate and, you know, make more resilient the American populace to this kind of disinformation: To have them recognize it when it comes, to have them, you know, have access to the kind of real information that can help counter it. And that is really less the work of government and more the work of a broader effort in civil society to to build up essentially the antibodies within the U.S. body politic against this kind of disinformation. 


And there’s leadership from Washington to continue to encourage that and to model that good behavior. But at the end of the day, I think that’s going to require a much more bottom up rather than top down approach, and should be something that a lot of young people out there — who are kind of saying, “What can I do to help defend and advance the values I care about in this country?” — that they get in the game on this issue. Because this third bucket is going to be driven from outside Washington, not inside Washington. 


BEN: All right — along the lines of issues that are nearly impossible to solve… let’s turn to the Middle East. We talked on the show about this transactional mindset that’s driven our polices there for decades — kind of going to autocratic regimes, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and saying, “You help us fight terrorists, and we’ll give you weapons.” And how that securitized mindset has also perpetuated what feel like endless wars. What’s the basic approach to end that mindset and wind down our endless wars? 


JAKE: So the thing that’s bothered me a lot about the discourse on the Middle East for as long as I can remember, is that we basically measure America’s commitment to the Middle East by how many soldiers we have there. It’s like, if we’re drawing down our number of troops, we’re abandoning the region. 


[ARCHIVAL: CARLY: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are responsible for the growth of ISIS because they precipitously withdrew from Iraq in 2011 against the advice of every single general…..JEB: Barack Obama became President and he abandoned Iraq. He left….and that void now exists as a Caliphate the size of Indiana.]


And that is just a crazy way to think about America’s engagement with this part of the world. So my basic formula on this is that the United States should be simultaneously more ambitious and less ambitious when it comes to the Middle East. We should be less ambitious about our ability to use military force to produce positive outcomes, because the fact is we’re really bad at that. And we should take that lesson and basically stop trying to use military action to produce stability across the Middle East. So we should get way less ambitious on that. 


But I think we should get much more ambitious about what we can possibly achieve through muscular diplomacy. And that includes honestly helping reduce and de-escalate the major conflicts in the region that are producing so much of the chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and, yes, extremism– violent extremism and terrorism. So we should be pushing on Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate. We should be working to try to carry forward an overall reduction in the tensions among the major state players: Turkey, Syria, Iran, etc. 


And in some of those cases, from my perspective, we should be frankly working with outside actors as well — our, our partners in Europe. But, you know, Russia obviously has a voice in this, too. And we should be aggressively trying to design diplomatic tables at which we put as many of these countries as possible to try to find progress towards a reduction in overall violence. And to do that, it’s going to require, on the one hand, giving some reassurance to traditional partners in the region that we’re not just like up and leaving altogether, but some really tough love, particularly to some of our autocratic partners of decades past — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, others — to say, “Look, we’re not gonna look the other way when you mistreat your people, and we’re not going to give you a green light to act in destabilizing and aggressive and negative ways that contribute to instability in the region. We’re going to expect you to step up.” And I think we have the wherewithal to make meaningful progress on that. 




You know, everyone’s very cynical about the Middle East at this point, everyone. And so am I — like, I’m not predicting we can just produce peace in the Middle East overnight. I mean, “peace in the Middle East,” as a phrase, is almost kind of a kind of laughable concept. 


But do I think that we can get on— in a direction of de-escalation, as opposed to escalation? Yeah, I do. And I think we should not be shy about stepping up to try to do that. And that means reducing our overall military footprint, but increasing our overall diplomatic effort in the region. And I would love to see that as a formula that the Biden Administration pursues in the years ahead if he’s fortunate enough to be elected. 


BEN VO: That’s easier said than done. But I *know* that Joe Biden is skeptical of what can be achieved with our military – he opposed that Afghan Surge in two thousand nine, just as he opposed the intervention in Libya in two thousand eleven. And he can also pick up the work of diplomatic efforts like the Iran nuclear deal – an agreement that Jake helped to negotiate.




After the break, we’ve got more from Jake Sullivan.  Laying out the Biden campaign’s plans for everything from tackling the migration crisis that our wars helped to cause… 


…to literally saving the planet.


JAKE: You know, when people say, “What are the foreign policy priorities of— should be the foreign policy priorities of the next administration?” Climate’s got to be right at the top of that list, given what an existential threat it is. 

That… and my final message to you, as we prepare ourselves for the election. When Missing America continues. Stay with us.



— MIDROLL ADVERTISEMENTS: Babbel, ZipRecruiter, Who We Are —




BEN VO: In the first episode of this series, we learned how America’s strength in the world comes — in large part — from our reputation as a home for people from all over.


After all, there’s a big statue out in New York harbor celebrating our promise to the world: of a safe haven for the masses. That mindset has enriched our nation, and given us a unique claim to moral leadership in the world. 


The bad news? In less than four years, Donald Trump has signed more than four *hundred* executive actions designed to turn *away* immigrants and refugees. Ripping perhaps our greatest international calling card to shreds.  


The good news? A President Biden could quickly overturn Trump’s executive actions, with a bunch of his own. starting with reversing Trump’s offensive Muslim ban. 


[ARCHIVAL: BIDEN: “If I have the honor of being President, I will end the Muslim 

Ban on Day One.”]


But as we’ve also learned, welcoming refugees is a step that can come with political consequences.




Something Jake Sullivan’s well aware of.   


JAKE: Look, this is such a hard issue because we saw in Europe that, you know, genuinely generous refugee policies produce these massive political backlashes. And the lesson that European leaders have taken is to be way more reluctant to accept more refugees. But frankly, this begins with the United States stepping up to play its historic role as the world’s leader in refugee admissions and then in helping organize a more effective global response. The number of refugees accepted in the Trump administration has fallen to near zero. And Joe Biden has actually, on World Refugee Day a few weeks ago, put out a really bold statement, where not only did he talk about raising the target to 125,000 per year, which is over and above what was done in the Obama Administration. But he also said, “I want to be accountable for at least a floor too. I’m not just talking about the ceiling. I’m saying that the United States has a certain obligation to meet a threshold on this.” 


[ARCHIVAL: BIDEN: A minimum admission of 95,000 refugees. That’s who we are, that’s how my great grandfather… got here. He got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea never knowing whether he was going to make it, and he made to United States of America in 1848.]


JAKE: And I think that kind of spirit can be infectious because it can create the momentum for the United States then to rally the rest of the world to do two things. One: to have more countries with means step up and increase their willingness to take in refugees. But then two: and maybe more importantly, to get the world to overhaul a refugee law or set of conventions that really haven’t changed in many decades, when the nature of migration has changed dramatically. 


So, for example, the current Global Refugee Convention doesn’t really contemplate climate migrants, yet that’s going to be an increasing pressure on the system in the years ahead. And the U.S. should be sitting with the other major countries of the world and saying, “What’s it going to take to set new rules on this so that we’ve set in place the ability to absorb what is going to be possibly upwards of 140 million refugees just over the course of the next 20 years alone?” Mostly from climate, but, you know, also from conflict and other things as well. 


And here, honestly, I think having a little bit of backbone… having been through this on the political side, where when you look at the polling data, it looks bad at various points, like people are nervous about taking refugees from Syria. But if you push on the argument with them, one more step, a lot of folks come around. And so some of this just requires some political courage on the part of political leaders to break through initial resistance. And, you know, Joe Biden has been fearless about that. And I think his leadership on this can help produce similar kinds of fearlessness in leaders in other countries as well. 


BEN: So, you mentioned climate. And I obviously want to talk about that. You know, it’s interesting — even in the Obama Administration — where climate change was front-burner, and we expended tons of political capital to get to an ambitious Paris Climate Accords – to get that negotiated and signed — it was hard to embed climate in all of our domestic and foreign policy decisions across the board. Cause that’s really a sea change. What does that look like in a Biden Administration?


JAKE: So Joe Biden’s actually laid out a remarkably detailed international climate plan based on the simple proposition that the United States is 15 percent of global emissions, which means that if we want to solve this problem, we got to rally the other 85 percent of the world to do it. That basic fact is reflected in this extensive document that he’s laid out on this. But I’ll just touch on four basic highlights of it.




The first is to recognize that rejoining Paris on day one is an absolute must, but not enough. We are also going to call the countries of the world together to elevate their ambitions under Paris, to increase their commitments to mitigate carbon in their own countries. The U.S. will commit to do it. And the U.S. will rally the rest of the world to do it, including our close allies and including the world’s largest emitting country, China. 


Second thing is the vice president has said, “Let’s work towards a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies.” There’s just no more excuse for subsidizing fossil fuel either here or around the world. And, you know, there was a study actually by the International Monetary Fund that showed if you didn’t have these subsidies, you could have reduced global carbon emissions by nearly 30 percent to date. 


Then the third big piece of this is to get dramatic breakthroughs on the technology side. You know, the Obama-Biden Administration launched something called Mission Innovation, which was 20 countries coming together around research, development and deployment of breakthrough technologies. And Joe Biden wants to take this to a dramatically greater scale.


[ARCHIVAL: BIDEN CLIMATE: “We’re going to make a major investment to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes…. and we’re going to convert these government fleets into electric vehicles…that’s how we’re going to achieve a carbon neutral electric sector by 2035.”]


[00:34:21] And then finally, there’s the issue of how climate fits into trade and development. You know, China’s out there through the Belt Road Initiative, basically exporting its carbon pollution. The vice president is going to work aggressively to establish development standards globally that build both climate carbon mitigation and allow for these developing countries to be able to adapt to the ravages of climate change, which they’re going to face faster and greater than than the rest of the world. And on the trade side, it’s to recognize you can’t have trade deals going forward that don’t build climate considerations into their core. And the Vice President will be very much focused on doing that, not just in what the U.S. does, but in trade rules that apply more broadly around the world. A lot more to say on this topic, but, you know, as you may be able to tell from me wonking out on this a bit, it’s something that he cares passionately about and that I am deeply passionate about as well. And to your point…




…it needs to come. This– you know, when people say, what are the foreign policy priorities of— should be the foreign policy priorities of the next administration? Climate’s got to be right at the top of that list, given what an existential threat it is. 


There is so much wrong with our world today. But as we’ve learned on this show, there are also so many good ideas that good people are passionate about. For mitigating climate change…and for pursuing a world that is more just, more equal, and more responsive to the problems in peoples’ lives. 


When I think back on my time in the Obama Administration, there’s a lot that I’m proud of, and there are a lot of things I wished we could have done differently. The same will surely be true of a Biden Administration. 


I told Jake that two things stood out for me when I look back. 


First, that we could have done more to listen to the voices…not just of governments, but of people around the world – progressive leaders and activists like the ones you’ve met on this show. 


And second, that we could have been more attuned to the profound connection between what was happening at home and what was happening around the world…the idea that there really is no dividing line between domestic and foreign policy; or between domestic politics and the politics of other countries. And how movements like Black Lives Matter give us an opportunity to address problems not just at home, but around the world. 


JAKE: Look, I have to acknowledge that, frankly, the election of 2016 and its consequences have really opened my eyes in a lot of profound ways. But maybe one of the most fundamental is the recognition that we saw foreign policy through far too narrow a lens. And by “we” I don’t mean everybody; I do mean me! And some others… 


BEN: Yea, you can throw me in there. 


JAKE: But basically, when we sat around the Situation Room table, we weren’t thinking about the distributive justice of, you know, who’s benefiting from these policies we were pursuing. We weren’t thinking about how movements in our own country needed to be responded to, but maybe even more importantly, could be harnessed in service of building a better world. It just was a blindspot of sorts. 


And I actually feel like the four years of Trump have created a circumstance in which those of us who seek to continue to play a role in American foreign policy going forward have had the chance to build relationships, learn things, be exposed to arguments and perspectives that we hadn’t been before. So I’m excited about the possibility that the whole conversation and who’s in it when it comes to the big ticket items of China or climate or global public health or nuclear weapons or what-have-you– will involve not just your traditional voices and your traditional mechanisms, but can harness all of this energy in a much more positive way. 


So, I think it’s a sea change. And you and I have talked to lots of our colleagues and, you know, people we served with in the Obama Administration. I think this is kind of an almost across-the-board feeling of folks. And that’s pretty exciting.




Look, Joe Biden isn’t going to solve all of our problems. He’s not a perfect candidate. He won’t be a perfect President. Barack Obama was a once-in-a-generation political talent, and *he* couldn’t do that.


But I want to leave you with two thoughts. 


First, everything is on the line in this election. 


Our democracy will not survive four more years of this. And if we – as a country – can live through the Trump presidency and decide to validate his performance through re-election….well, the world will draw their own conclusions about how screwed up America is…and they’ll be right.


But the simple truth is that more Americans oppose Donald Trump than support him…so if we do the work of organizing, of making a plan to vote, and trying to persuade that family, friend or neighbor who is on the fence – then we can and will win this election. 


And it’s not just a vote against Trump. Joe Biden is a smart, decent, experienced guy – someone who is in it for the right reasons and will hire a lot of the right people…as you just heard, people who are thinking seriously about what’s going on. Even if Biden is not everything you want – and you almost never get that in politics – he is about a million times better than the other guy. 


So vote. 


Second, the work doesn’t end after the election. 


If there’s one lesson that I hope you take away from this series, it’s that governments alone can not solve our problems. It takes engaged citizens to hold them accountable and keep them focused. It takes activists and civil society to generate new ideas. And it takes mass mobilization – movements that are sustained, connected across borders, and determined to win more than one election. 


We can do this, people. The wrong leaders are on top in too many places, but we can make sure that they won’t be the ones who determine the future. We can do that. That’s what America was supposed to be all about…what we’re supposed to represent to the world. 


Donald Trump doesn’t define America. 


We do. 


We are many. 


And we are not alone in this world.



Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes.

It’s a production of Crooked Media.


The show is produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein.

Rico Gagliano (gall-ee-ON-oh) is our story editor.

Austin Fisher is our associate producer.

Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez.

Production support and research from Nimi Uberoi and Sydney Rapp.

Fact checking by Justin Klozco (KLOSS-koe)

Original music by Marty Fowler. 

The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Tanya Somanader.

Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau.

Thanks for listening.