At a moment of almost unrelenting bad news—of war in the Middle East and Europe and violence-tinged political rancor at home—somehow, the first thing I managed to see on Thursday morning was an unexpected bit of geopolitical cheer: the Chinese leader Xi Jinping had signalled his willingness to have China send new giant pandas to the United States, to replace the beloved aging bears that were driven away from the National Zoo in a sad convoy of FedEx trucks last week and put on an airplane for a flight back to their ancestral home. Xi, who was in San Francisco for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and to meet with President Joe Biden for their first face-to-face session in a year, had announced at a dinner with business leaders on Wednesday that he was prepared to deploy a new set of furry “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American people.” He also leaned hard into comforting clichés of the not-so-distant past, reassuring the executives in attendance—some of whom had paid forty thousand dollars a table to dine with him—that China is no adversary and, in fact, still hopes to be “a partner and friend of the United States.” The return of panda diplomacy might have been the most concrete sign yet that war is neither imminent nor inevitable between the world’s two leading powers. At least that’s something.
Biden’s meeting with Xi was a cordial enough session; the most substantive deliverables to come out of it were a modest promise to resume some military-to-military contact that had been cut off about a year earlier and a plan to work together to curb the supply of the deadly drug fentanyl to the United States. But a truer reflection of the current state of affairs between the two countries came in the President’s solo press conference afterward. Biden had finished his largely pro-forma remarks about what he called America’s responsible competition with China and was headed out of the room when he stopped to answer a reporter’s shouted question: Did he still think the Chinese leader was a “dictator”?
Biden had used the word to describe Xi earlier this year, setting off a furor in the Chinese state media. It seemed off-message with the good-vibes positioning of the summit to repeat it. But repeat it, Biden did. How could he not? Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the resurgence of Trump, and the Israel-Hamas war, Biden had devoted his foreign policy to the idea that the challenge posed by Xi’s autocratic rule in China was a generational threat to the United States. This is a President who speaks of the “inflection point” that the world faces, defined by a struggle between democracies and resurgent autocracies such as Xi’s and that of his ally Vladimir Putin. “Well, look, he is,” Biden said. “I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a Communist country.” Predictably, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded on Thursday by calling Biden’s remarks “extremely erroneous,” as well as an “irresponsible political maneuver.”
The skirmish, however, hardly registered. Americans seem much too busy these days ripping each other apart to be bothered with rhetorical hot flashes of great-power rivalry. It says much about this moment in U.S. politics that, on Thursday, when demonstrators staged a die-in on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge timed to the APEC summit, they were protesting Biden’s strong support for Israel in the wake of the October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas and subsequent Israeli attack of Gaza, not anything having to do with Xi. With calls for a ceasefire growing this week, Biden has continued to emphasize that Israel is justified in its war, including the “precise” operation it launched inside Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, which Israel claims also serves as a military base for Hamas. “The idea that they’re going to just stop and not do anything is not realistic,” the President said during his press conference. At almost exactly the same time as Biden finished speaking in California, left-leaning protesters in Washington, D.C., blocked the entrance to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, trapping the Party’s congressional leadership inside. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and other senior Democrats were at a reception for the Party’s top 2024 recruits, and had to be evacuated by Capitol Police, who said demonstrators had turned violent and wielded pepper spray against officers. (Protesters claimed they were “violently attacked” by police, according to Politico, resulting in more than ninety injuries.)
On Thursday morning, I spoke with Andrei Cherny, one of the candidates who attended the reception. Cherny is running in Arizona’s First District, a top target for Democrats in their effort to take back control of the House. In 2020, the district went for Biden over Trump by just under two points; four years earlier, it had gone for Trump. When Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff, held an event at his home for Cherny, he told attendees, only half joking, that Cherny’s was “the most important district in the country for Biden.” Cherny is the grandson of four Holocaust survivors. He told me that, since October 7th, he considers Biden to have done a “really masterful job in terrible and difficult circumstances,” trying to balance support for Israel with concern for the humanitarian crisis that Israel’s war is inflicting on Palestinian civilians.
The experience of being trapped inside the Party’s own headquarters, though, underscored the extent to which this war has triggered a true clash inside the Democratic Party—a “good-faith” one, Cherny insisted, despite Wednesday night’s violent skirmish. Surveys have found the Party so divided on the matter that, in an AP-NORC survey released last week, nearly half of Democrats disapproved of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict. A day before the protest at the D.N.C., a pro-Israel rally drew tens of thousands to the capital, including Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate. “It feels like, in some ways, the first real foreign-policy debate among Democrats in the post-Cold War era,” Cherny told me. His view is that, while there have been strong disagreements among Democrats in recent decades on foreign-policy issues such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, most Democrats eventually came to see that war as a mistake. But on the Israel-Hamas war the Party is quite profoundly split between traditional liberal internationalists such as Biden, for whom bedrock backing for the Middle East’s lone democracy remains a core belief, and those on the Party’s left flank who see Israel as an apartheid state that has left Palestinians little choice but violent resistance.
Cherny, in his previous incarnation as a party intellectual, co-founded the journal Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, an incubator for many of the young liberals who would go on to staff the Obama and Biden Administrations. He also wrote a history of the 1948 Berlin airlift, an important chapter in the early Cold War. “This reminds me so much of the Harry Truman–Henry Wallace kind of schism of how Democrats and progressives see the world,” he said. “It’s really the first time this debate’s been joined since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
None of this may matter too much for Biden politically. If the war is over soon, the world will no doubt move on to another crisis before next fall’s election. Foreign policy is rarely, if ever, a decisive issue in a U.S. Presidential contest. And it’s hard to imagine pro-Palestinian protesters deciding that Trump—he of the Muslim ban and the whatever-Netanyahu-wants Israel policy—will better represent their cause than Biden. (In a recent rally, the former President promised to cancel the visas of any foreign students on American college campuses who are “Hamas sympathizers.” “We don’t want you in our country,” he said.) Cherny, for his part, told me that his voters care more about immigration and the border than Israel. The inflated price of gas or a gallon of milk seems like a bigger problem for Biden than his decision to stick with America’s decades-old military backing of Israel.
But, like all crises, the war has nonetheless revealed something important about our politics—a rift between the Democrats’ young and increasingly left-leaning base and an old-fashioned liberal of a President who is turning eighty-one on Monday. A party divided against itself will only have a harder time standing up against Trump—or Xi for that matter. Biden, as the drama of recent weeks has reinforced, is and will remain a proud and unyielding son of the twentieth century. Is it enough, in this age of TikTok, to give him another go? ♦