President Joe Biden embarks for Europe on Thursday, 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 G20 Leaders Summit in Rome and on to Scotland for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, is bracketed by presidential travel to New Jersey and Virginia early this week and Election Day next Tuesday in those two states with key off-cycle gubernatorial races.
Biden’s Monday events in the Garden State were considered official White House business, though Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy (who is running for re-election) was a presence throughout.
“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency — competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about expanding opportunity, not opportunity denied,” Biden said in Kearny, New Jersey, in pitching both 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 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 throughout the first year of his presidency 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 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 that the Biden administration has wanted to be included in the budget reconciliation bill still under development, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., 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.”
Schumer added, “there’s different ways to get there.”
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, I think, 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, R-S.D., 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.
And while the president is abroad, Vice President Kamala Harris and other top Democrats will be out in Virginia trying to help former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to return to the governor’s mansion. It’s a contest that attracted Biden to a rally in Arlington, Virginia, Tuesday night, in one of the president’s 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, the Pentagon and just blocks away from where Amazon is building its East Coast headquarters. It is the kind of place Democrats tend to rack up big margins to offset losses in rural parts of Virginia and closer margins in swing districts, like the Richmond suburbs.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has moved its rating of the race to Tilt Democratic as GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin continues to show strength in polling. That is the last step in his ratings before “Toss-Up” – a warning sign for the president and Democratic leaders given Virginia’s overall Democratic edge. Biden won the commonwealth by 10 points over Donald Trump in last year’s presidential contest, with 54% of the vote.
McAuliffe has been calling for leaders in the nation’s capital 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 Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has been among those advocating for the House to move forward with a bipartisan infrastructure deal even as the discussions about the social policy 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 take place the very day Biden is set to return to U.S. soil, and if no deal among Democrats is announced before Air Force One is 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 that has Democrats sweating the results of the Virginia returns all but guarantees the trip will be filtered through the lens of domestic politics.
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