Biden finds wins abroad easier to come by than at home
Evan Vucci/AP

Biden finds wins abroad easier to come by than at home

Meeting his foreign counterparts behind closed doors in Rome this weekend, President Joe Biden repeatedly recited for them a key figure: $555 billion.

That is the massive sum of money set aside to combat climate change in the sweeping social spending plan he’s been trying to get through Congress. In conference rooms and in hallways, Biden wielded the number — by far the largest amount ever for climate — to prove to his fellow leaders that America is finally ready to tackle the world’s existential problem.

He’d once hoped the money would be approved by the time he arrived in Europe last week for a pair of high-profile international summits — timing that might also boost Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s lagging campaign for governor in Virginia.

He tried to force the matter in the hours before he departed. As he was jetting over the Atlantic toward Italy, however, it became clear the gambit wouldn’t work. Making his return flight home Tuesday, the future of his plan was no more certain than when he’d arrived.

By the time he landed, McAuliffe had lost.

Biden’s second foreign trip has been shadowed at both ends by halting efforts to pass a sweeping domestic agenda. After arriving in Europe unable to secure a vote, he left with fresh doubts about one key senator’s position.

In between, Biden was able to move world leaders on a host of issues he’s struggled to gain traction on back home. He secured an agreement that would see corporations pay more in taxes after unsuccessfully pushing for a corporate tax hike in Congress.

He pushed world leaders to up their climate ambitions, including on methane and international coal financing, even though his own climate plan was scaled back after opposition from one senator with deep ties to the coal industry.

Even Biden’s chatty meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican was an entirely warmer affair than his frosty standoff with conservative American bishops, who are mulling a plan that would deny him communion because he supports abortion rights for women. Emerging afterward, Biden said Francis called him a “good Catholic,” and the next day he received the holy sacrament at a church in Rome.

Feeling invigorated during in-person meetings he says cannot be replicated over a screen, Biden found in Europe a level of cooperation that’s become elusive at home.

“Two world leaders came up to me today and said, ‘Thank you for your leadership. You’re making a big difference here,'” he said during a concluding news conference in Scotland before returning to Washington.

“They listened. Everyone sought me out,” he said earlier in the trip. “They wanted to know what our views were. And we helped lead what happened here.”

“Not Trump-y”

Biden has long savored international summitry for its ample opportunities for backslapping. Though he skipped some lighter-hearted photo-ops, including a coin toss at the iconic Trevi Fountain in Rome, and appeared weary as he listened to other leaders deliver their climate statements, he was mostly in his element. Over the course of the six-day trip, the White House listed pull-aside meetings with more than a dozen of his counterparts — and one with Prince Charles.

“It never ceases to amaze me, when you’re looking at someone straight in the eye, when you’re trying to get something done. They know me; I know them,” Biden said as he departed the G20.

Two leaders he wasn’t able to stare down were China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose absences from either gathering only seemed to cement the impression they have little interest in global cooperation. Biden said the no-shows “disappointed” him.

“We showed up. We showed and by showing up, we’ve had a profound impact on the way I think the rest of the world is looking at the United States in this leadership role,” he said Tuesday. “I think it’s been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China, with respect to China not showing up.”

“To me, it just is a gigantic issue,” he went on. “And they’ve walked away.”

Instead of a high-profile summit with Xi — once envisioned by his aides for the G20 — Biden’s most watched meeting was with the leader of a longtime ally, French President Emmanuel Macron. Biden smoothed over a rift involving nuclear-powered submarines by admitting his administration had been “clumsy” and suggesting he’d been misinformed on some details.

The forthrightness caught some of his own aides by surprise, though most agreed it was a necessary step toward repairing an indispensable relationship.

“Our reaction to this was not Trump-y,” a senior administration official said afterward. “It was, you know, an effort to basically say, ‘OK, let’s just set this on the right course.'”

For Biden, acting “not Trump-y” abroad is about more than just style. On this trip, he also reversed Trump-era steel and aluminum tariffs and conferred with European leaders about the possibility of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump cratered by withdrawing US support.

Biden’s challenge this week was convincing fellow leaders that he and the United States remain committed to various causes, like climate change, that went mostly ignored during the previous four years. He went as far as apologizing for former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a move he claimed, “put us behind the 8 ball.”

It was a sentiment that sat well with other leaders, even as they looked for Biden to make his actions on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and global security durable enough to withstand a Republican president — potentially Trump himself.

“I think our allies believe that we have to lock in progress as much as possible while there is a president who is a deeply committed transatlanticist in office,” a senior administration official said halfway through the trip.

Manchin tosses a monkey wrench into Biden’s pitch

Locking in progress has proved difficult.

Just as Biden was just arriving for a leaders’ dinner at the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow on Monday, centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia stepped to a podium in the US Capitol to declare himself undecided on the spend-and-tax framework the White House had laid out days earlier.

Democrats largely shrugged off Manchin’s concerns and are pressing forward with plans for a vote anyway, potentially even this week. Even progressives have indicated they are ready.

Still, Manchin’s comments came at an inopportune time for the President. He spent the previous five days citing the plan in public and private as evidence of US credibility on combating climate change.

Sitting in the art gallery among fellow leaders, Biden heard a pointed — and timely — message from the summit’s official host.

“I, for one, hope that this conference will be one of those rare occasions where everyone will have the chance to rise above the politics of the moment, and achieve true statesmanship,” Queen Elizabeth said in a video message.

White House officials were quick to shrug off Manchin’s appearance, and swiftly released a statement saying they were confident the plan would gain Manchin’s support.

Biden said as he left Scotland that he was confident the West Virginian would come around: “I believe that Joe will be there,” he said.

Some of his advisers said it was time for the process to move ahead.

“Sen. Manchin has been part of the discussion for a long time,” said Gina McCarthy, the national climate adviser who was accompanying the President in Scotland. “The President has been negotiating with both him and others, and it’s time to move this forward. I think Sen. Manchin is going to do what he needs to do, and I’m pretty sure that the President knows we’re going to have the votes we need to get this passed.”

Biden did not speak with Manchin in the 24 hours after the senator’s press conference, though White House officials were in touch with him.

Biden’s aides insisted ahead of the trip he would have ample time to lobby lawmakers over the phone while abroad, but while he was here officials said his principal focus was on his foreign policy meetings.

On his flight home, though, politics were looming.

“I’m going to be landing at one o’clock in the morning East Coast time,” he said when questioned about a tighter-than-expected race for governor in Virginia. “That’s probably about the time we’ll be hearing what the final results are.”

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