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6 November 2021

Why Joe Biden’s domestic troubles are haunting him abroad

The past week should be a wake-up call for the US president.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – This was supposed to be a big week for US president Joe Biden. He was in Rome for the G20 and then Glasgow for Cop26. There is a version of events in which he arrived at these two conferences having passed his domestic agenda through Congress, could credibly claim to have committed American resources to the fight against the climate crisis, and have received a further boost from Democratic victories in the elections that took place this week.

But that is not what happened. Instead, Biden’s domestic agenda remains stalled. On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the infrastructure bill, but the more ambitious social spending legislation, which includes clean energy provisions, has still not made it through the House or the Senate.  This meant that, even as Biden lectured other countries at Cop26, he was effectively there empty-handed.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, Biden was dealt another blow in Virginia, a state he won easily in 2020. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, lost to millionaire businessman Glenn Youngkin, who offered a subtler, but still recognisable, version of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The warning signs were also flashing red elsewhere: Phil Murphy did become the first Democratic governor of New Jersey to win re-election in the state for four decades, but he barely scraped home.

Virginia Democrats, unsurprisingly, disagree over what went wrong. Some pundits rushed to blame progressives. Progressives, in turn, pointed to McAuliffe, a centrist who focused his campaign on tying Youngkin to Trump. Some in the party have called for more attention to be paid to the economic problems of American families, citing inflation and supply chain issues. Others say this is reason to act, quickly and boldly, to provide a stronger social safety net. 

There are some reasons for Biden and the Democrats to take heart. The midterm elections are still a year away. The state of the economy and of the pandemic (and its aftershocks, like mask mandates and school policies, which became heated issues in the Virginia race) could both be very different then. 

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Still, the loss (and narrow win) should be a wake-up call to Democrats about running with a positive message, as opposed to running against Trump. And the week should be something of a reminder for Biden, too: it’s difficult, if not impossible, to declare that “America is back” abroad if his own house is not in order.