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When President Joe Biden flew on Air Force One to Cornwall four months ago, it was less than half a year since he had been sworn in. He arrived on his first trip abroad as president riding a wave of goodwill from America’s European allies who were weary of the bluster, bombast, and affinity for dictators that characterized Trump’s time in office. The message he went there to deliver was simple: America was back.
Now, nearly a year into his term, Biden is on his way back to Europe just hours after pressing Congress to enact his signature Build Back Better Act into law so he can arrive having fulfilled his promise that the US will take action to halt climate change in time for the COP26 conference in Glasgow.
The message this time? Democracy works.
If Biden cast his ultimately successful campaign against Donald Trump as a “battle for the soul of America” in which voters would choose “hope over fear, facts over fiction” and “truth over lies” by electing him as the nation’s 46th president, he has just as much made his term a referendum on democracy versus autocracy. Often choosing to frame this choice explicitly in his remarks, Biden has bet that Americans — and the world — will see his success as proof that the liberal order, characterized by free and fair elections to choose governments that respect basic human rights, is not too slow-moving and cumbersome for the increasingly polarized world of the 21st century.
With Thursday’s announcement that a deal has been reached to pass his Build Back Better plan through Congress, Biden will arrive in Rome on Friday with some — but not all — his ducks in a row.
The deal reached between House and Senate moderate and progressive Democrats does not please everyone. It doesn’t include the paid parental leave provisions he had made a centerpiece of his agenda. And it still has to pass both the House and Senate, via slim majorities that empower individual members to a degree not normally seen.
But the White House doesn’t see the “framework” unveiled on Thursday as half a loaf. They see Biden arriving in Europe having kept his promises and getting things done.
“The President is coming into the G20 and COP26 with strength,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said while speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Rome. “He’s been a leader since he stepped into the White House from day one, and he’s going to continue.”
Asked whether a failure by House and Senate leaders to move the package before Biden reaches Glasgow would be an embarrassment, Jean-Pierre echoed what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said about the bill not long before, calling it “transformational”.
As of when this column was being typed, the House Rules Committee was considering debate rules for what is now officially the Build Back Better Act — the last step before the House can approve the bill. In the Senate, it will require a long and often-weaponized amendment process called a “vote-a-rama” to pass, which Republicans will use to force Democrats to take politically toxic and embarrassing votes, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. So it’s not likely that Biden will have anything ready for his signature by the time he reaches Scotland on Sunday.
But will world leaders see the failure to meet the COP26 deadline as a failure of democracy?
According to White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, probably not. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Sullivan said Biden would be meeting with “a sophisticated set of world leaders who understand politics in their own country and understand American democracy and recognize that working through a complex, far-reaching negotiation on some of the largest investments in modern memory”. Sullivan added that he believed Biden would be “on track” to deliver on his commitments when he arrived in Glasgow.
So far, it looks like a promise made and kept.