The United States was still staggering from the Great Depression when polio-stricken Franklin Delano Roosevelt walked slowly and painfully to the podium at the East Portico of the Capitol to deliver his first inaugural speech on March 4, 1933.
The country's GDP had fallen a third between 1929 and 1933, the stock market had lost 90% of its value, and the country had spiraled from full employment to 25% jobless. Just over a month earlier, Adolf Hitler had risen to power in Germany, and was already well on his way to establishing total control of the Third Reich, adding the Weimar Republic to the increasingly crowded graveyard of post-World War I democracies.
Early in the speech, FDR delivered the line enshrined in history that underscored the collective anxiousness of the nation he was addressing. "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear," said Roosevelt, pausing for dramatic impact, "is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Yet the loudest cheer came not there, nor when Roosevelt excoriated the "money changers," and condemned the "callous and selfish wrong-doing" of bankers and businessmen. Nor did it follow his praise for the enduring strength of the U.S. Constitution, which itself was in danger, as "the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced."
Most troubling to his wife Eleanor, the most robust audience response came near the end of the speech, when Roosevelt vowed, with a grim countenance he had maintained throughout, that if all other measures he proposed proved inadequate, he would ask Congress for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."
That same afternoon in her new quarters at the White House, the First Lady slowly drew off her gloves and told her friend Lorena Hickock, one of the best-known female American journalists of her time, that she found the inauguration "very, very solemn and a little terrifying." Speaking quietly, the First Lady particularly worried about the crowd's delirious embrace of the possibility of wartime powers.
"You felt they would do anything — if only someone would tell them what to do," she said.
It is at this time when a newly elected U.S. president is again about to shape global history, for better or worse, that I took this summer to reflect upon lessons of a past when the United States faced economic threats, political divisions and rising authoritarian dangers that at times seemed insuperable.
The setting for these ruminations was a family vacation rental in Rehoboth, Delaware, which by no design of our own was down the street from presidential candidate Joe Biden's summer home — and the Secret Service detail that protected it in the days after Biden retreated to Rehoboth following the convention where he accepted the nomination. So, after spending much of the last four years tracking world events and U.S. policies during the Trump administration, I shifted my focus to conversations with Biden confidants and policy advisers on how the former vice president perceives our historic moment and what he would do to address it.
Readers of this column recognize that I consider the period we are navigating to be a historic inflection point equivalent to the periods following the two world wars in its potential to define the world for generations. That was true even before our 2020 witch's brew of pandemic, recession and racial-cultural upheaval.
The good news is that the Biden team grasps the significance of the moment. They began by dissecting how much the context had changed since former President Barack Obama left office. Global democracies were on their back foot and China was not only rising but growing more assertive and authoritarian. Transnational threats had escalated, from climate to organized crime, but the rules and institutions to deal with them had weakened.
Add to that a technological revolution that will define our times, which offers everything from the dangers of the Chinese surveillance state to the opportunity of a clean energy future that saves the planet. The Biden team gets that tech by its nature is agnostic in the global competition of democratic and authoritarian systems, and that artificial intelligence can allow both to operate with greater efficiency.
Most encouraging is that Biden embraces as fundamental "the intersection between domestic policy and foreign policy, not as an abstract notion but as a strategy," Jake Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to the Biden campaign, told the Atlantic Council's Damon Wilson in a foundational interview.
Even as the U.S. invests in infrastructure, innovation, workers, its immigration system and the strength of its democratic institutions, Sullivan says Biden would "put values and democracy back at the center of U.S. foreign policy." He would "rally like-minded free democratic nations in common purpose to both push back against authoritarian competitors and also construct and build the kind of long-term durable solutions for the challenges that afflict us all."
Most intriguing is the Biden commitment to convene a global "summit of democracies" during his first year in office, perhaps based on the D-10 model (the world's 10 largest democracies, a concept the Atlantic Council has advanced through the work of its Scowcroft Center).
The ambition would be to set priorities together on issues ranging from beating the pandemic and its economic aftershocks to dealing with the rise of China, the threat of climate change and fostering longer term approaches on everything from trade to technology. The regional priorities would be the Indo-Pacific, as the place of the future; Europe and the Atlantic community as the irreplaceable core; and the American continent as the promising but neglected neighborhood.
When Roosevelt delivered his 1933 inaugural, there were only 20 democracies against 130 autocracies. Democratic governance began to grow after World War II and then accelerated most dramatically after 1989 and the Cold War's end toward a high point of 101 democracies and 78 autocracies in 2011.
The events of the next few years will determine whether democracy regains its footing, or the authoritarian shift accelerates. Those are the stakes — and the challenge is to achieve the best of outcomes while skirting the worst of consequences.
At the end of his 1933 inaugural, Roosevelt sought divine intervention: "May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come."
However, even that didn't allow him to avoid the Holocaust and World War II that would punctuate his presidency before the U.S. would rally democracies to build a better future.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.
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