The White House is facing a dilemma. After months of often thankless effort and high-stakes negotiation, President Biden is celebrating one of the most successful weeks of his presidency. The only problem? Few Americans noticed.
While the domestic political forecast couldn’t be worse, the Biden administration has enjoyed outsized success reintroducing American leadership globally. But since those victories took place far from American media outlets exclusively focused on American political dysfunction, most Americans never heard about them.
Unfortunately for Biden and his capable diplomats, overseas victories alone won’t save Democrats from brutal elections in 2022 and 2024. Sooner than he might like, Biden will need to reckon with how to deliver domestic wins as impressive as those coming out of the State Department.
If you’re reading this in the United States and you aren’t a member of Congress, there’s a good chance the only foreign policy news you’ve heard this year involved America’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of August. And while that’s a hugely consequential event, it also represents something uncommon for the Biden foreign policy: a high-profile foreign policy failure.
As David Rothkopf wrote in The Daily Beast earlier this month, Biden is driving the “most significant strategic shift in its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.” It’s difficult to argue with Rothkopf’s thesis when, in the span of just over a week, Biden officials inked two historic global agreements — one with the potential to modernize global commerce, the other a bold commitment to address climate change through tangible, state-level policy change.
On Oct. 8, for the first time in history, a group of 136 nations agreed to establish a 15 percent minimum global corporate tax as part of a broader international effort to stamp out tax havens and crack down on financial crime. Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenProgressives see budget deal getting close after Biden meeting Democrats narrow scope of IRS proposal amid GOP attacks Hoyer: Democrats 'committed' to Oct. 31 timeline for Biden's agenda MORE, a long-time advocate for the global corporate tax, played an instrumental role in the effort to bring historically low-taxing holdouts such as Ireland and Hungary into the fold after years of resistance.
Make no mistake: The 15 percent global corporate tax came into being because American diplomats drove the effort and Biden made its success a major foreign policy priority. Beyond its functional aspects, the agreement signals the return of the United States to a position of global leadership. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Secretary General Mathias Cormann called the agreement a “major” diplomatic victory that would finally bring international finance into the digital age.
But if Biden and Yellen’s diplomatic finesse wowed European heads of state, the news was largely ignored back at home, where Senate ratification of the new tax deal depends on Republicans who are in no mood to grant Biden anything resembling a win. When Yellen suggested that the White House was looking for ways around Senate ratification, Republicans quickly turned a major international victory into a media campaign about Biden’s legal overreach — turning Biden’s victory lap into a defensive crouch.
Only a few days later, on Oct. 11, White House Climate Envoy John KerryJohn KerryPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Climate divides conservative Democrats in reconciliation push Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Walrus detectives: Scientists recruit public to spot mammal from space MORE announced that two dozen countries (including some major polluters) pledged to cut methane emissions by a third by 2030. That’s part of Biden’s Global Methane Pledge, an international initiative launched in September in partnership with our European allies. Kerry’s diplomacy means that a group of nations representing roughly 60 percent of the global economy has now made pledges to slash greenhouse gases.
Much to the dismay of U.S. progressives, most of Biden’s biggest climate initiatives have been directed overseas. Biden convened a global summit to announce an aggressive plan to cut climate emissions by half by 2030, brought the United States back into the Paris climate agreement and made clear America will play a leading role at the upcoming United Nations Cop26 Climate Summit. But little of that has broken through to Democrats’ enviro-voters, who have been focused almost entirely on greening out Biden’s big domestic spending packages.
Over the summer, an article in Foreign Policy magazine remarked on the Biden administration’s practice of “unleash[ing] foreign policy initiatives at a breathtaking pace,” with respected foreign policy minds hailing Biden’s energetic foreign policy as nothing short of a “revolution” akin to the structural shifts seen under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in an increasingly inward-looking America, it isn’t clear that voters care about generational foreign policy advances when their domestic political system remains infuriatingly broken.
As Democrats head into midterm elections with high-profile campaign promises on voting rights, criminal justice reform and infrastructure still undelivered, Biden shouldn’t expect his commendable international achievements to float a half-built boat.
If Democrats hope to maintain control of Congress in 2023, Biden will need to bring the same energy to domestic policy that he brings to the international sphere. That means embracing the same willingness to challenge the status quo that led to Hungary’s change of heart on corporate taxation — and nothing in Washington is more status quo than the filibuster. Modernizing how and when the filibuster is used is no less ambitious than Biden’s bold international climate agenda. It’s also no less important to the survival of our institutions.
Without domestic wins to accompany his foreign policy, Biden may soon find himself losing flexibility in both arenas. A Republican Congress is unlikely to let Biden advance key parts of his international climate agenda, and every move his diplomats make will face theatrical levels of scrutiny by Republicans well versed in obstructing every avenue for policy change.
Biden rightly views his presidency as the re-emergence of American leadership at home and abroad. For now, he’s only half right.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.