Domestic politics to follow Biden overseas

President would prefer a reconciliation deal before departing for Europe

Greenpeace activists set up marionettes outside the Capitol on Oct. 20. President Joe Biden likely won’t be able to avoid domestic politics when in Europe later this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Greenpeace activists set up marionettes outside the Capitol on Oct. 20. President Joe Biden likely won’t be able to avoid domestic politics when in Europe later this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 26, 2021 at 6:19pm

President Joe Biden embarks Thursday for Europe, where he hopes to bring word of agreement with Democrats in Congress on major climate and social policy priorities — but domestic politics will be hard to avoid.

By happenstance of the calendar, the trip to Italy for the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Rome and on to Scotland for the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow is bracketed by presidential travel to New Jersey and Virginia early this week and by Election Day next Tuesday in those two states with key off-cycle gubernatorial races.

Biden’s events Monday in the Garden State were considered official White House business, though Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is running for reelection, was a presence throughout.

“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. … They’re about expanding opportunity, not opportunity denied,” Biden said in Kearny, N.J., as he pitched the bipartisan infrastructure bill and his proposals for the Democratic reconciliation package. “They’re about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by.”

The president has repeatedly said he wants to make sure the world knows that democracy still works. It was a key theme of his first address to a joint meeting of Congress, and he has repeated some version of that message in both domestic and international settings this year, noting in July that “a lot of the rest of the world is hedging their bets whether to move toward autocracy or stay with democracies.”

Having concrete deliverables, in terms of an agreement with House and Senate Democrats, before arriving in Rome on Friday would make that case easier and clearly be the administration’s preference. But national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that, in effect, the world’s leaders know that democracy is often messy.

“They also recognize that the United States has a set of democratic institutions, has a Congress; that this is a process, that it needs to be worked through,” Sullivan told reporters while previewing the trip. “And so, I believe that whether there is a deal this week or whether the negotiations continue, there will be a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the effort the president is undertaking right now to make bold, far-reaching investments that will deliver on his commitments, both with respect to climate and with respect to economic growth in the United States.”

Even as West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III has resisted climate proposals the Biden administration wanted to be included in the budget reconciliation bill currently under development, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday it was still his belief that “there’s going to be a very strong, robust climate package, and our goal is to meet the president’s goal.”

The New York Democrat added, “There’s different ways to get there.”

On the homefront

Ahead of the president’s trip, Republicans are talking about the potential for further inflation, especially in the price of energy.

“The president’s obsession and preoccupation with going and schmoozing with people in Glasgow, Scotland, to talk about the Green New Deal is completely lost on the American people, who are caring more, a lot more, about the prices that they’re paying to heat their homes,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota said.

There are other agenda items for the president’s trip that may be of immediate concern to people back home. For instance, Sullivan highlighted Biden’s intent to “cement progress” on establishing a global minimum tax.

“He’ll be laser-focused on supply chains and energy prices because he knows that these issues impact working families here in America. And in advancing the Build Back Better World initiative — the B3W initiative — he will show how a high-standards, climate-friendly alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative can help American firms and American workers compete globally on every aspect of infrastructure, from physical to digital to health,” Sullivan said.

While the president is abroad, Vice President Kamala Harris and other top Democrats will be out in Virginia trying to help former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to return to the governor’s mansion. It’s a contest that will attract Biden to a rally in Arlington, Va., Tuesday night, in one of his last formal events before departing for Europe.

The rally site, Virginia Highlands Park, is a bustling, densely populated part of Northern Virginia near Ronald Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon and just blocks away from where Amazon is building its East Coast headquarters. It is the kind of place Democrats tend to wrack up big margins to offset losses in rural parts of Virginia and closer margins in swing areas, like the Richmond suburbs.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has shifted its rating of the race to Tilt Democratic, as GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin continues to show strength in polling. That rating is a step below a Toss-up race — a warning sign for Biden and Democratic leaders given Virginia’s overall blue lean. Biden won the commonwealth by 10 points over President Donald Trump last fall, 54 percent to 44 percent.

Getting anxious

McAuliffe has been calling for leaders in Washington to, as he put it in an interview with The Associated Press, “get their act together” on key agenda items, from infrastructure to voting rights.

Virginia’s senior senator, Democrat Mark Warner, has been among those advocating that the House move forward with a bipartisan infrastructure deal even as discussions about the budget reconciliation measure have slowly progressed.

“While we work on ironing out some of the details with the budget, there’s no reason the House shouldn’t vote to approve the bipartisan infrastructure deal. The deal, which I helped write, is the largest investment in America’s infrastructure needs in generations,” Warner said in a statement. “It’ll help fix our roads, bridges, and airports, spur economic growth, and ensure that the U.S. continues to lead the world in innovation. Let’s put a win on the board.”

The returns for the New Jersey and Virginia elections will come in on the very day Biden is set to return to U.S. soil, and if no deal among Democrats is announced before Air Force One wheels up for Rome on Thursday, the president may need to spend more of his time communicating with lawmakers back at home during his travels.

“Obviously, this is a top priority, to keep moving his agenda forward in advance of his trip,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “I would also say that there are phones on Air Force One and also in Europe. And so he will continue to be engaged even as we move to the trip.”

And regardless of what kind of success Biden has in Europe, his return on a day when Democrats will be sweating the results in Virginia all but guarantees the trip will be filtered through the lens of domestic politics.