PHNOM PENH — Fresh off midterm elections where his party showed surprising strength, President Joe Biden now begins a series of summit meetings in which the major unknown to world leaders is whether he’s a lame duck or a good bet to serve out a full two terms.
Biden hasn’t given a definitive answer yet on his future, telling reporters at a news conference this week he’s in no hurry to announce a re-election campaign and wants to discuss his plans with his family. Exit polls Tuesday showed that, by a two-thirds margin, voters would prefer that he step aside. “My intention is that I will run again,” said Biden, who turns 80 this month. “But I’m a great respecter of fate. And this is ultimately a family decision.”
Biden’s future will be front of mind as he heads first to Egypt, then Cambodia and Bali, where he has meetings with leaders like Chinese President Xi Jinping and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to discuss issues like the global economy, the war between Russia and Ukraine, and North Korea’s nuclear program.
Biden’s counterparts overseas are looking for stability in American leadership and foreign policy, coming off years of political turbulence with no quick end in sight. At a meeting last year of the leaders of the seven largest advanced economies, he told the group, “America is back,” the president recalled at the news conference. “For how long?” one retorted.
The U.S. presidency has changed hands three times in the last five years and is up for grabs again in 2024. Sandwiched between the Biden and Obama presidencies was Donald Trump, who scorned the commitment to alliances and collaborative action that has defined American foreign policy in the post-World War II era.
Defeated presidents seldom make a comeback, but Trump may announce his re-election bid next week. “If an election between Trump and Biden were held today, Trump would win and he would win in a landslide,” John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster, said in an interview before the midterm elections. “Right now, Trump is the gorilla in the room.”
Even if Trump were to skip the race, his movement has spawned a series of imitators who’ve bought into his “America First” foreign policy credo and may run in his stead. For the world leaders meeting with Biden over the next week, there’s no assurance that he'll be the president they’ll be dealing with for the next six years.
“I don’t know that he has removed the cloud looming overhead of being a lame-duck president for two years,” said Brett Bruen, who was director of global engagement in Barack Obama’s second term. “If I’m a [world leader] looking at where I want to invest my political capital, I don’t think that Biden is going to be able to deliver aid or engagement on the hard issues of my country or region.”
Biden arrives in Egypt on Friday for a conference focused on the global climate crisis. He then heads to Cambodia for meetings with Asian leaders, with whom he hopes to cement ties as the U.S. looks to curb China’s growing global influence.
He’ll be skipping a separate Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Thailand late next week, an event that conflicts with his granddaughter Naomi Biden’s wedding on the White House’s South Lawn.
A challenge for Biden is to “persuade allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region that the U.S. is committed to the region and to them for the long haul,” said Matthew Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Given that, “I think the president’s nonattendance at APEC is an unforced error,” Goodman said. “I think he should have found a way to be there for a few hours to reassure the region that he was committed … ”
The focal point of Biden’s entire trip figures to be a private meeting in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday with China's Xi, the first time they’ll have spoken in person since Biden took office. The two will meet on the sidelines of a meeting of the G-20, a group of nations that account for 80 percent of the world economy.
Expectations are low. The two leaders will not put out a joint statement, nor are they likely to announce any agreements, an administration official told reporters. The idea is for Biden and Xi to talk candidly, “build a floor for the relationship” and stop “the downward spiral,” the official said.
The U.S. is unnerved by Chinese military exercises that threaten Taiwan and raise the specter of a future invasion. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August, the Chinese conducted retaliatory military drills signaling its displeasure. A Chinese government spokesman described the exercises as “a warning” to anyone wishing to establish Taiwan’s independence.
What might come out of Biden’s appearance at the G-20 is nothing that will turn “the tide in the relationship, but just the minimum necessary to prepare ourselves for even choppier waters ahead in the U.S.-China relationship,” said David Shullman, senior director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
A central issue at the G-20 meetings will be the grinding war between Russia and Ukraine. But the instigator of the conflict isn’t planning to attend. Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing setbacks on the battlefield, was bound to be vilified at the summit had he decided to show, analysts said.
“The noose is getting tighter and tighter around Putin,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “So I don’t think he gains anything by going to the G-20. To the contrary, he’s just going to get lots of lectures.”
One of Biden’s aims is to persuade leaders that democracies are preferable to the autocratic model that China and Russia have embraced. Undercutting that argument was the Jan. 6 insurrection, when rioters breached the U.S. Capitol and disrupted the peaceful transfer of power.
The midterm election results buoy Biden in this respect, with some of Trump’s handpicked candidates losing and finding a limited appetite for the baseless argument that the 2020 race was stolen. In defeat, a few high-profile Republican candidates he endorsed have even graciously accept the results rather than peddle claims of voter fraud.
“Tuesday was a good day for America, a good day for democracy,” Biden said Thursday at a Democratic National Committee event.
Another reason that Biden might find the trip more gratifying is that he averted the midterm wipeout that sitting presidents normally endure. Though control of Congress is still up in the air, Biden can face his fellow leaders knowing that GOP lawmakers won’t be in prime position to unravel his policies, as they’d hoped to do.
The last Democratic president to visit Asia right after midterms arrived under grimmer circumstances. Obama’s party had lost more than 60 House seats and a half-dozen Senate seats in 2010. In his memoir, “A Promised Land,” Obama wrote that as Air Force One flew to India after what he famously called a “shellacking” in the midterms, he was unable to wind down and scared up a card game with his weary staff. The morning after the election, he wrote, he awoke “with a mix of weariness, hurt, anger and shame, the way a boxer must feel after coming out on the wrong end of a heavyweight bout.”
There was never any doubt, though, that Obama would run for a second term. Biden’s midterm test went much better. For the next week he’ll be touting the resilience of America’s democratic tradition. He’ll be back in the company of his fellow leaders, who may still want an answer to the question they posed to him last year: for how long?