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Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

At this stage in his presidency, one gets the feeling that trips abroad are a welcome reprieve for President Biden. The political tide continues to turn slowly against him, and the list of domestic challenges is growing. A bruising defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, a stalling legislative agenda, and sinking approval ratings are enough to give the president three big headaches as he returns from COP26 on Air Force One.

When will ‘America is back’ start to mean something?

Biden has carried a consistent message as he tours world capitals and global conference like COP26, delivering three simple words: “America is back”. He is right, and US presence at global forums like COP26 is an important reminder that American once again recognises an international leadership role. But on the other side of the coin, the shambolic departure from Afghanistan proved that Biden’s foreign policy agenda might yet turn out to be as unpredictable as Donald Trump’s.

Biden relies perhaps too heavily on just “showing up”. In his closing remarks, he fired a veiled criticism at presidents Xi and Putin for ignoring the climate conference. “We showed up… and by showing up we’ve had a profound impact on how the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role,” he added.

With John Kerry by his side as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, this president is uniquely well placed to be the driving force in a truly global fight against the irreversible impacts of climate change. The irony of the presidential motorcades clogging up Glasgow’s streets will not be lost on climate activists, nor the arrival and departure of Air Force One.

Is it enough just for the United States to show up? It is not reasonable to expect the power of the president to be sufficient for adversaries like Xi and Putin to change their minds on coming to COP. But having shown up, there was no major or game-changing intervention from the United States. With so many world leaders in one place, it is difficult for any one individual to make an impact or leave their mark. It is possible that the sheer saturation of power in the room results in an altogether forgettable event. After all, everyone is largely saying the same thing.

What was clear at COP26 is that, notwithstanding his good will and convivial demeanour with allies, this president lacks the presence of a Trump or oratory gift of an Obama. Poor attention to detail and an inability to stay focused during speeches has long been levelled at the presidential septuagenarian and dozing off with the eyes of the world watching is an unfortunate coincidence for the man whose opponents call “Sleepy Joe”. Biden can claim to have had a successful summit, but soon enough just “showing up” will need to be replaced with meaningful action.

The three big issues facing the returning president

Biden’s current malaise can be best split into three.

First, electoral defeats. The timing of COP26 was awkward for Biden given it coincided with a handful of elections at home. In New Jersey, the battle between incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Republican Jack Ciattarelli is still undecided. The Republican led by just over 1,000 votes out of more than 2.36 million cast in a race that Democrats had expected to win.

The more stark result of the night came in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin defied polling and historic trends to defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In the short term, it presents a major warning sign for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms.

Youngkin has arguably created a winning formula for Conservatives running in towns, counties and states where Trump’s popularity amongst the voting population is low, but high amongst registered Republicans. Youngkin walked a meticulously fine line between mainstream Republican talking points – culture wars, ‘critical race theory in schools, and an ailing presidential agenda in Washington – while embracing Trump from a safe distance. He neither criticised the former president nor stood next to him in rallies.

Democrats expect to suffer in next year’s midterms, if nothing because historical precedent dictates that the incumbent party customarily suffers a bloody nose from the electorate at the first available opportunity after winning the White House. Virginia’s loss is unlikely to prompt a major strategic rethink at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or in the White House, but one should never underestimate the impact of a shock local result.

After all, Downing Street ripped up its entire housebuilding strategy for the country after losing Chesham and Amersham. But it will alarm Democrats running in districts and states formerly considered “safe”, while putting wind in the sails of Trump who endorsed and campaigned for a victorious candidate in a state that he lost in the general election by 10 points.

Second, a stalling legislative agenda. Democrats have spent weeks arguing amongst themselves about the finer details of the White House’s vast Build Better Act. The overnight electoral setbacks will add volume to the voices arguing the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill needs to slow down its legislative timetable and better engage centrists instead of pandering to the left.

Third, sinking approval ratings. A stalling domestic agenda is usually manifests into election losses. According to FiveThirtyEight, a majority of Americans (50.8 per cent) now disapprove of Biden whilst 42.8 per cent approve. There is some comfort in knowing that, in the October of their first year, Trump’s approval was lower at 37 per cent and President Obama’s similar on 53 per cent (Gallup). But whilst Biden’s term average to date is a more respectable 51 per cent, but his popularity is on a clear downward trend.

Biden can reasonably claim to have had a good COP26 summit. He relies perhaps too heavily on just “showing up” purely based on the fact that his predecessor too often either failed to show up or used global forums to agitate against international institutions. But with COP26 behind him, Biden returns home to a divided America and, more pressingly in the short term, a deeply divided party.