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What Does Social Spending Mean for American Power?

It started as a sprawling, once-in-a-generation expansion of the social safety net: an ambitious $3.5 trillion plan to extend access to health care, public education and paid parental leave, affecting nearly every American’s life. But, as you heard on The Daily this week, the social spending bill has been whittled down to a smaller version after Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia expressed repeated objections to specific provisions.

On the show, we explained the dramatic domestic implications of the legislative compromises being negotiated by Democrats. But as the president heads abroad for a diplomatic marathon with world leaders this weekend, we want to use this newsletter to pick up where we ended today’s episode — and ask how the impacts of these bills will ripple beyond our borders.

The Daily strives to reveal a new idea in every episode. Below, we go deeper on one from our show this week.

The Biden administration is facing a week that could determine the president’s legacy.

At home, Biden has made clear that his presidency, the Democrats’ electoral prospects in the midterms and the social welfare of millions of Americans are hanging in the balance as Democrats negotiate a compromise on his social spending bill. But before leaving for two major international summits, the G20 Summit and COP26, he also framed this moment in terms of America’s international standing: “It’s about leading the world or letting the world pass us by,” he said.

So we wanted to ask a few experts: Is this moment really a referendum on America’s global power, as Biden said? Here are three ways they said the president’s bill matters for American diplomacy.

Biden is arriving at two major summits facing a test: Can he resume global leadership and reassure allies that the U.S. can be trusted as a consistent partner?

“There is general concern among the allies and friends about what is happening to our democracy,” said Joseph S. Nye Jr., a Harvard professor who coined the term “soft power.” He added that while many allies were “delighted to see America return to multilateral institutions,” many now wonder whether entrenched polarization could make American leadership unreliable — and subject to increasingly dramatic swings based on which party is in power.

“They’re wondering: Are we going to see flip-flopping back and forth?” Dr. Nye said. He added that allies were particularly concerned about disinformation, as well as the lack of public and congressional consensus about the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.

To Leslie Vinjamuri, a director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House, the social spending bill is a chance to prove that “American leadership cannot only sound good and look good, but that it can actually deliver,” she said. She noted that creating consensus and overcoming entrenched partisanship was “the great promise of Joe Biden.”

Now, the social spending bill is both “a referendum on President Biden and whether any president can make a system that the rest of the world probably perceives to be a little bit broken” actually work, she said.

As a result of political polarization, Dr. Nye believes that allies will be less willing “to treat us as the North Star to guide their policies” in the long term. However, he sees bold climate action, as outlined in the social spending bill, as a way to reassert some global leadership that was lost in the Trump era.

The United States formally withdrew from the Paris climate agreement under Donald Trump. Biden promptly rejoined the agreement after entering office, and climate has emerged as the single largest category in his social spending bill. The climate crisis is now the center of his party’s domestic agenda ahead of the global climate summit in Glasgow. (It was unclear this week if all Democrats would support the package.)

“There are very few people on this planet who think that America is on the right side of climate change in terms of its cars and its energy use,” Dr. Vinjamuri said. But getting Democrats to vote for the proposed $555 billion for climate programs would be a start in helping the “U.S. meet its targets,” she added, giving the country the “legitimacy to put pressure on others to meet their targets.”

With the spending bill yet to be finalized, Dr. Vinjamuri notes that what is left out of the legislation could also have implications for America’s standing abroad, sending a clear signal to foreign citizens about what the U.S. values.

“Our soft power is massively negatively affected,” she said, by the news that paid family leave — a public good provided by other developed nations — is likely to be removed from the social spending bill. People who experience these benefits “just do not understand, and they can’t imagine that it can be anything but crippling for the U.S. in the long term,” she added.

Dr. Nye argues that, in regards to the social safety net, “America has always been inadequate in European eyes,” he said. While he supports the proposals and believes a lack of paid family leave “hurts us,” he believes “other sources of influence,” such as expanding U.S. vaccine diplomacy, would do more to improve America’s standing abroad.

Still, both agree that world leaders are ultimately more focused on threats to the American political system. “The fact that we might lose the quality of our democracy which has been a bedrock for American standing in the world,” Dr. Nye said, “that is the real threat to our soft power.”


This week, you may recall hearing the foreboding string music in Monday’s episode on Evergrande, or the deep drone and pulsing dulcitone behind yesterday’s recap of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing. Our audio team has three dedicated composers — Elisheba Ittoop, Marion Lozano and Dan Powell. Below, we asked Elisheba and Marion a few questions about how they make their music.

Every morning, the Daily team gathers to discuss upcoming episodes and share new pitches. Our three composers take turns attending these meetings, and then we debrief on which stories we think would benefit from original scoring.

Usually, more than one of us is eager to compose music for an episode, so we tend to tag-team. We assign a lead composer who is responsible for communicating with the episode’s producers and understanding their vision for it, and then clearly translating that vision to the other composers.

There’s a saying that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” If a producer were to tell us, “This moment should sound like blue,” we’d all probably come up with dramatically different music cues. Elisheba might go the sunshine-and-butterflies route, while Marion might come back with a death-and-destruction motif. (This has actually happened!) That’s why it’s vital for us to assign a lead composer to each episode. If one of us goes astray, the lead composer will bring us back.

Earlier this month, The Daily ran an episode called “Which Towns Are Worth Saving?” about the effects of climate change on two towns in North Carolina, Avon and Fair Bluff. Elisheba is from North Carolina, so she felt a personal draw to the story.

A few weeks before the episode aired, Elisheba talked to Michael Simon Johnson, the lead producer, about the type of mood he wanted the scoring to achieve. Elisheba wanted to ensure that she and Michael were on the same page, so she made a playlist of songs that felt very “North Carolina” to her: warm but a little melancholy, with flat-picked guitar and sparse instrumentation. Michael said the mood of the playlist was exactly right.

Elisheba, Marion, Dan and the audio fellow Chelsea Daniel ultimately composed the music for the episode, using the playlist as a jumping-off point.

Here’s a song Marion wrote that’s meant to sound as if you’re walking down the streets of Fair Bluff. It features both an electric and acoustic guitar, as she wanted the grit of the electric and the roundness of the acoustic. If you listen carefully, it also has subtle imperfections (like pitch flubs and timing issues), which speak to the troubled history of flooding in the town:

Here’s a song by Elisheba that feels beautiful and warm, but also mournful. It conveys the idea that although the town can save itself in the short-term, the threats of climate change are urgent and inevitable:

This actually happens quite often! For every cue a composer creates, there are three others that don’t make it into the final episode. It comes down to variables like texture, tone and whether or not there’s a good scene for it.

Whenever we make a cue, we add it to our Daily music library, which has over seven gigabytes of original music. Here are some examples:

You may recall hearing Elisheba’s song called “A Fine Needle” in our episode about a young Afghan woman named N. The producer Lynsea Garrison was drawn to the song for its “eerie quality” — like a “ballerina spinning in a jewelry box,” she said. “There was innocence and tension in it that I loved and, of course, just sadness.” Take a listen:

And Marion’s song “Cash Money” found a home in Monday’s episode on Evergrande, the collapsing property developer in China. It’s in a minor key, and it features strings and piano engaging in dark tones. Her inspiration was the theme music of the TV show “Succession.” Listen here:

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