His reelection campaign in crisis, Joe Biden hosts high-stakes NATO summit in Washington (2024)

Joey Garrison,Francesca ChambersUSA TODAY

WASHINGTON − President Joe Biden faces a pivotal moment this week as he prepares to host the leaders of more than 31 nations in Washington with a sudden new mission: command the world stage and stabilize a reelection campaign in crisis.

Much was already riding on Biden's performance at the summit marking the 75th anniversary of the NATO alliance. While his election opponent, former President Donald Trump, has questioned America's role in the organization, Biden has sought to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO.

Yet after Biden's dismal debate performance 11 days ago, he must now allay the fears of worried Democrats openly discussing whether he should drop out of the race or remain their party's presidential nominee. Biden is under immense pressure to calm his critics by demonstrating competence and coherence as he welcomes NATO allies and partners to Washington for the three-day summit and as he tries to prove his case against Trump.

Biden's interactions with his European counterparts will be under especially intense scrutiny after incidents in which he has mixed up the names of foreign leaders. More recently, he struggled to complete thoughts and finish sentences during his debate against Trump in late June, setting off a panic among Democrats that has not subsided.

Visiting leaders will be looking for similar reassurances about his ability to beat Trump. European officials have expressed private concern about how Trump would approach the alliance if he returns. Biden has also claimed that at earlier summits, heads of state have pulled him aside to say "You can’t let him win."

"The gravity of this moment for Biden is larger than anticipated," said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. "And it just, I think, puts extra pressure on him to deliver in a way that reassures allies and reassures the American people that he is fit and ready to do this job, not just until the end of his presidency but potentially for another four years."

His reelection campaign in crisis, Joe Biden hosts high-stakes NATO summit in Washington (1)

His reelection campaign in crisis, Joe Biden hosts high-stakes NATO summit in Washington (2)

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A growing handful of elected Democrats and party heavyweights have said Biden should step aside. The list could expand as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill this week after an extended holiday recess.

Biden is likely to be subjected himself to questions from reporters about whether he will quit the race when he holds a news conference Thursday at the end of the NATO summit – his first since the disastrous confrontation with Trump.

"This is absolutely critical," said Todd Belt, professor and political management program director at George Washington University. "Not only is the microscope going to be on Biden, but the job of commander-in-chief is to be able to work together with our allies. And the critical job of keeping the nation secure is one of the reasons we want someone who is cognitively and physically up to the job."

Political concerns could upstage NATO

Biden will spend much of his time at the summit in group discussions about weighty topics from military and financial support for Ukraine in its costly battle against Russia to the longer-term goals of the defensive alliance that was created after World War II.

His schedule includes a one-on-one meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose country sought – but has not received – a formal invitation to join NATO. He also will come face-to-face with newly appointed British Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who took power last week after the Labour Party won a landslide election.

The president and first lady Jill Biden will open the summit Tuesday evening at a commemorative event at Mellon Auditorium, where the North Atlantic Treaty establishing NATO was signed on April 4, 1949. Biden will address NATO allies publicly Wednesday afternoon and hold a dinner that night for leaders and their spouses. His agenda Thursday includes a gathering of the NATO-Ukraine Council and an event with nearly two dozen nations that have signed individual security agreements with Ukraine. He'll cap the summit off with his news conference.

"Typically, though, most of these meetings happen behind closed doors," said Steven Fish, a Berkeley political scientist and author of "Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy’s Edge."

That means Biden's public remarks "for the most part can be scripted," he said. "So this isn't the kind of event where you would expect him to falter. It's not like a debate or an open-ended interview."

His political crisis could draw more attention than his larger geopolitical message this week as foreign officials field inquiries about Biden's age.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last month before Biden's debate that the president is "someone who is very clear, who knows exactly what he is doing and who is one of the most experienced politicians in the world."

But Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski took a swipe at Biden after the debate ended, writing on X, formerly Twitter: "Marcus Aurelius was a great emperor but he screwed up his succession by passing the baton to his f*ckless son Commodus (He, from the Gladiator). Whose disastrous rule started Rome's decline.

"It's important to manage one's ride into the sunset," Sikorski wrote.

U.S. officials argued ahead of the summit that foreign leaders know Biden and what he is capable of.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing that "you're going to see the president being a leader" as he brings NATO allies together for the summit. "Look, foreign leaders have seen the president close-up and personally for the past three years. And I think that's important to know. They know who they are dealing with and how effective he has been."

A defiant Biden digs in

In his highly anticipated interview Friday with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Biden dug in amid unrest from Democrats after his debate debacle. He refused to acknowledge Democratic detractors who want him to drop out of the race, dismissed concerns about his mental fitness and rejected the validity of polls that show him losing to Trump.

When asked about the possibility of withdrawing, he responded: "Well, if the Lord Almighty comes down and tells me to do that, I might do that." He insisted that most Democrats want him to remain their nominee even as five House Democrats publicly called for his exit, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., was reportedly assembling Senate Democrats to ask that Biden drop out.

If Democrats wanted to hear a more conciliatory president − who recognizes the fallout from his debate performance − they did not get it from Biden. "I don't think he did himself any favors," Belt said. "He came off as really hardheaded."

David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said Biden is "dangerously out of touch with the concerns people have about his capacities moving forward and his standing in this race."

"Four years ago at this time, he was 10 points ahead of Trump. Today, he is six points behind," Axelrod posted on X after Biden's interview.

Biden has used appearances at international events to make a forceful case for American democracy, a key theme of his reelection campaign. Without explicitly mentioning Trump, he said last month that World War II veterans were summoning Americans "to stand up to aggression abroad and at home."

"This will be a good chance for him possibly to recover some of the authority that he has at home, or that he had more of at home, because this is a forum in which he really shines," Fish said.

But, he said, "I don't think there's going to be a lot of opportunities at the summit for him to dig himself out of the hole that he seems to have fallen into, especially after the debate."

His reelection campaign in crisis, Joe Biden hosts high-stakes NATO summit in Washington (2024)
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