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Struggling at home, Joe Biden is buoyed by G20 trip abroad

Biden acknowledged contradictions and stumbling blocks to his long-term ambitions on issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a smile.

By: New York Times |
November 1, 2021 11:08:15 am
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at the conclusion of the G20 leaders summit, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Rome. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Written by Jim Tankersley and Katie Rogers

President Joe Biden capped a long weekend of diplomacy Sunday with a swaggering proclamation of America’s renewed force on the world stage, claiming credit for what he cast as breakthroughs on climate change, tax avoidance and Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the end of a Group of 20 summit that was missing some of his biggest global adversaries.

Buoyed by a three-day return to the interpersonal negotiations that have defined his political career and still overcome emotionally by an extended Friday audience with Pope Francis, Biden shook off questions about his sagging poll numbers at home and projected new optimism for his teetering domestic policy agenda.

He acknowledged contradictions and stumbling blocks to his long-term ambitions on issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a smile. And he claimed significant progress from a summit that produced one large victory for his administration — the endorsement of a global pact to set minimum corporate tax rates — along with a deal between the United States and Europe that will lift tariffs including those on European steel and aluminum.


In other areas, like climate change and restoring a nuclear weapons accord with Iran, the summit produced few concrete actions.

But the president told reporters repeatedly that the weekend had shown the power of American engagement on the world stage, and that it had renewed relationships that frayed under his predecessor, Donald Trump.

“They listened,” Biden said. “Everyone sought me out. They wanted to know what our views were. We helped lead what happened here. The United States of America is the most critical part of this entire agenda and we did it.”

In the course of his Roman holiday, Biden sought to patch up relations with the French over a soured submarine deal, to bask in the blessing of the tax deal that his administration pushed over the line after years of talks, and to galvanize more ambitious climate commitments before a global conference in Glasgow, Scotland, that he was traveling to next.

The president left behind the chaos and disappointments of Washington, where recent surveys show that voter disapproval is mounting over his performance in office and that Democrats remain divided over a pair of bills that would spend a combined $3 trillion to advance his wide-ranging domestic agenda. Polling conducted by NBC News shows that 7 in 10 Americans and almost half of Democrats believe America is going in the wrong direction.

But after days of indulging in backslapping diplomacy at a time when bipartisan cooperation is in short supply at home, Biden emerged for his news conference Sunday professing hope that both bills would pass the House in the next week and playing down the polls.

“The polls are going to go up and down and up and down,” Biden said. “Look at every other president. The same thing has happened. But that’s not why I ran.”

President Joe Biden walks off after speaking at a news conference at the conclusion of the G20 leaders summit (AP)

One reason Biden sought the presidency, after more than four decades as a senator and vice president, was for meetings like the G-20, where he is able to practice the flesh-pressing politics he has long enjoyed.

World leaders have been slow to reconvene in person as the pandemic has stretched into its second year, but Biden attended a Group of 7 meeting in England in June that was a diplomatic icebreaker of sorts for wealthy countries. The summit in Rome brought a larger group of leaders together, although some of Biden’s largest rivals on the world stage, like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, stayed home.

Biden and other world leaders said the return to in-person talks changed the dynamic.

Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister whose country hosted the summit, said at a news conference that attendees were more willing than they had been in the past to address climate change, inequality and other problems that would require collective action to fix.

“Something changed,” Draghi said.

Biden had hourlong meetings at the summit with leaders of varying influence.

The prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, got 80 minutes. On Sunday, Biden also met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on the sidelines, emerging with the shared promise to keep engaging on a range of disagreements, largely in view of Turkey’s influence in several critical regions, including Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Biden said there were no substitutes for “looking at someone straight in the eye when you’re trying to get something done.”

But in many areas, the summit produced more rhetoric than action.

An agreement reached by the leaders Sunday pledged to end the financing of coal power plants in countries outside their own and to “pursue efforts” to keep the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, compared with preindustrial times.

“We remain committed to the Paris Agreement goal to hold the global average temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels,” the leaders said in a statement.

The lack of further progress angered activists and presaged the difficulties Biden might face when he attends a high-stakes climate convention in Glasgow beginning on Monday.

Biden conceded the irony in another push he made at the summit — for oil- and gas-producing countries to ramp up production to push down driving and heating costs — at a time when he is also urging the world to turn away from fossil fuels. But he said that the transition from oil and gas to lower-emission alternatives would not happen immediately, and that he was seeking to insulate consumers from price shocks in the meantime.

The summit’s climate commitments drew quick criticism from environmental activists. Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, called the agreement among the leaders “weak,” and said it “lacked ambition and vision.” Jörn Kalinski, a senior adviser at Oxfam, said it was “muted, unambitious, and lacking in concrete plans.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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