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‘America showed up’ to U.N. climate summit — but so did Biden’s domestic political issues

President Biden speaks during a news conference at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit on Tuesday in Glasgow. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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GLASGOW, Scotland — President Biden appeared omnipresent Tuesday during his final day at the Glasgow climate conference, unrolling a slew of new policies and glad-handing with British royalty and billionaire business leaders.

The foreign trip was an attempt to showcase the president as a global statesman, helming an America that’s ready to stand with allies and engage with developing nations on climate.

“It was critically important for America to be here,” Biden told reporters after two days of meeting. “The single most important thing that’s gotten the attention of the world is climate.”

And Biden bluntly used the absence of Chinese president Xi Jinping to drive home his case. “They walked away,” Biden said of the United States’ biggest adversary on the global stage. “How can you do that and claim to have a leadership mantle?”

But for all of the pronouncements in Scotland and preparations before that during a meeting of economic powers in Rome known as the Group of 20, the president remained dogged by his uncertain domestic agenda, the multitrillion-dollar package of legislation that would cement some of the grand promises he made on climate here. A key piece of that legislation appeared to fall into place Tuesday, while a fight over a tax provision heated up.

Despite major warning signs for Democrats, Biden projected optimism when asked about the Virginia governor’s race, the most closely watch election since his own. “We’re going to win,” he said, just hours before Republican Glenn Youngkin handed Terry McAuliffe a defeat, and Biden a referendum on his own leadership.

Walking the halls of the Glasgow convention center, Biden was at one point mobbed by hundreds of people — many of them journalists — who gathered around and peppered him with questions about Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has expressed skepticism about how the bill will be funded and who nixed a previous climate proposal in the bill.

“I believe Joe will be there,” Biden said at a news conference later in the day, predicting that the moderate senator will support his agenda.

The struggles at home created a difficult dynamic here, as he tried to press other nations to act and not merely pledge big goals, while it remains unclear he can deliver such actions.

In remarks at an event called “Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment,” Biden laid out the problem he faces. “Setting ambitious targets is only half of the equation, as you all know,” Biden said Tuesday afternoon. “We also have to . . . have concrete plans for . . . how we’re going to meet those goals.”

The president insisted that other leaders were not shaken by his inability to deliver results. Two world leaders came up to him, he said, just to thank him for making the trip.

As Biden walked through the winding conference floors, leaders appeared delighted to speak to the U.S. leader, who got a chance to practice the intimate approach to diplomacy he is known for.

Biden put his arm around the shoulder of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and pulled him in for a squeeze. He stood face-to-face with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and brushed her upper arm with his right hand as they talked about infrastructure. He grabbed the hand of Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley after one panel, holding it as they walked out of the room together.

It was a sharp difference from international summits during the Trump era, when the team of at least one European leader actually choreographed that person’s moves to avoid accidental run-ins with the U.S. president, reasoning that any face time was worse than no face time.

“Your leadership in climate diplomacy is essential,” gushed Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas on Twitter.

During sessions, Biden dug into details and focused on the administrative actions that his White House can take immediately. He unveiled a major new effort to cut methane in the United States, promising new regulations at home, and also convinced more than 100 nations to agree to cut those emissions.

His plan to protect forests earned him praise from world leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who reacted enthusiastically to Biden’s plans. “Joe, brilliant work today,” Johnson said.

The president contrasted his overseas trip with China, Russian and even Saudi Arabia, whose leaders skipped the highly anticipated summit as well as the earlier one in Rome.

Asked about whether the United States is more likely to confront China in an armed conflict, Biden said: “No.” But he also said that he wants to be sure that he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have open lines of communication.

“The only conflict worse than the one that’s intended is the one that’s unintended,” Biden said, explaining that he wants to avoid misunderstandings as the U.S.-China relationship grows more contentious.

The president took advantage of China’s decision to skip the event and organized an effort to counter their influential Belt and Road initiative. Called Build Back Better World, Biden’s plan would fund infrastructure projects in developing countries. The president stressed that his version of the program would focus on projects that are climate-friendly and have local support.

“By insisting and responding to the needs of developing countries, rather than dictating projects from afar, we can deliver the greatest impact for those who need it the most,” Biden said, critiquing China’s approach.

But the centerpiece of his day was a formal announcement that 100 countries have signed on to a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of the decade.

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said. The pledge’s signatories now include six of the 10 largest methane emitters and about 45 percent of global methane emissions.

Biden said that he hoped the world will surpass the pledges made. “Together we’re committed to collectively reduce our methane by 30 percent by 2030,” Biden said. “And I think we could probably go beyond that.”

The president at one point kept his own climate envoy waiting onstage — filling time.

“It reminds me of when I was in the Navy. We had a saying: ‘Hurry up and wait,’ ” John F. Kerry quipped as a roomful of people waited for Biden.

Then he approached the lectern again — “I’ll do what I learned how to do in the Senate, which is filibuster,” to deliver a lengthier introduction.

Like Biden, Kerry was also mobbed as he walked around the conference, and he too, got a chance to experience the meeting’s glamour: On Tuesday, Kerry was spotted speaking to actor and climate activist Leo DiCaprio.

Attending the climate event empty-handed meant Biden and his team had to grapple with questions about the administration’s durability.

Even Biden acknowledged the skepticism about his proclamation that “America is back.”

“People wonder, ‘Is that really true?’ ” Biden said. “America showed up.”

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