Foreign conflicts are taking up a lot of Biden’s time as he fights for his political future at home

Speaking to a group of Democratic donors at a Washington hotel last month, President Joe Biden wanted to underscore just how much of his time lately has been spent confronting a chaotic world.

Seventy-five percent of his job, Biden guessed, is consumed dealing with foreign leaders and traveling the world.

Whether or not that’s an accurate calculation of how Biden spends his days — aides said it sounded elevated amid an intensive stretch of diplomacy — Biden’s remark underscored a looming quandary for himself and his team: how do you respond to two overseas wars that have divided Americans and consumed vast swaths of time while also running a campaign whose stakes are nothing less than the future of American democracy?

In polls, most Americans do not rank foreign policy near the top of their list of concerns. Previous incumbents have run into political trouble and lost when voters view them as overly focused on problems abroad rather than at home. And the volatility of the current foreign conflicts — with the outcome of the war in Ukraine uncertain and the prospect lingering of a wider conflict in the Middle East — makes anticipating their weight next November impossible.

White House officials acknowledge it will be difficult to predict exactly how much of Biden’s time will be spent contending with foreign conflicts as the year develops, and point out the president’s schedule is always a careful balance.

The president will continue holding events that highlight what his team views as high-priority topics for voters, like efforts to slash junk fees and reduce drug costs, and will use marquee moments like his State of the Union address and upcoming campaign stops to set his agenda, including laying out the stakes for democracy, according to people familiar with the plans.

Even as the president turns his attention to the campaign, potentially spending less time in the Situation Room, the large national security apparatus inside the White House will remain squarely focused on international issues of concern. Aides don’t expect the president to travel abroad as much this year as he turns his attention to his campaign, though a few trips are planned for major summits.

Biden’s team is preparing for the unexpected as much as possible, and looking to past elections — like 2008, when voter interest in the Iraq War gave way to economic concerns — as examples of how quickly new issues can alter a campaign’s trajectory.

The president’s aides largely regard his intensive diplomatic efforts as a net positive, particularly when compared to the chaotic world presence of his predecessor, Donald Trump. And they see an intersection between his foreign and domestic agendas, including when it comes to efforts to protect democracy.

Still, while Biden and his team have sought to harness his diplomacy as evidence of his long experience as a statesman — his surprise visit to Kyiv last year was turned into a television ad — there aren’t plans to make Biden’s global efforts the centerpiece of his campaign.

That is despite Biden staking enormous amounts of political capital in leading the American response to the wars in Ukraine and Israel, calling on Congress to approve billions of dollars more for Ukraine and alienating some progressives in his staunch support of Israel.

US officials say both wars are now entering critical stages, with American assistance to Kyiv now at risk of drying up and as the White House watches closely for signs that Israel is moving to a more surgical phase of its assault on Gaza.

How each conflict will look in November is impossible to predict. Biden’s aides believe Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas could take months, if not years. In Ukraine, they acknowledge any effort to reach a negotiated settlement with Russia largely depends on the willingness of President Volodomyr Zelensky to agree to concessions — something he’s firmly rejected so far.

Other simmering hotspots could also explode to overshadow the current ones, including around Taiwan, the self-governing island where elections will be held later this month. American officials are closely watching how Beijing responds.

What does seem clear is the foreign matters that consumed Biden’s time in 2023 won’t be quickly resolved this year, and his efforts to get reelected will share time and energy with an ever-more-complicated world.

Lessons from history

There is ample precedent for an incumbent president seeking reelection to tread warily on the world stage. Jimmy Carter’s quiet efforts to free hostages held by Iran did not yield results by the time of his defeat in 1980; because he was unable to talk about the diplomacy publicly, the public came to view him as ineffective.

George H.W. Bush oversaw the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War, but voters were more concerned with high unemployment and inflation — a disparity seized upon by his rival Bill Clinton.

Both Carter and Bush failed to secure second terms.

Other presidents have had more success in harnessing American engagement abroad in their re-elections. George W. Bush secured re-election in 2004 amid two US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Barack Obama, whose 2012 re-election bid focused largely on the economy, was still successful despite Republican attacks on his record abroad.

Even amid Biden’s consuming focus on Israel’s war against Hamas, White House officials have maintained a steady pace of domestic-focused events, mindful of the risks in allowing the president to be seen as entirely consumed by foreign conflict. Biden will launch his campaign events this weekend with a speech about ongoing threats to Democracy in Pennsylvania.

“Being president means addressing challenges that are top of mind for hardworking Americans in their daily lives while also responding effectively when crisis strikes at home and abroad,” said White House communications director Ben LaBolt. “President Biden has shown over the past 3 years that he’s able to do both – passing laws that helped to create more than 14 million jobs, lowered prescription drugs costs and brought inflation down by two thirds and are revitalizing America’s infrastructure and technology while leading the world in response to global health, economic, security and climate crises that affect us all.”

Tricky balancing act

The risks of appearing overly focused on foreign policy are multifold, said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, including the degree of unpredictability and the frequent inability of a president to fully disclose everything that is going on behind-the-scenes in global crisis management.

The image rivals will paint: “You’re more focused on the security and safety of people overseas and not other people here in the United States who are struggling or dealing with economic issues and you get painted as out of touch,” said Zelizer.

“Biden is very kind of uniquely positioned to handle these issues. He’s definitely in a better position than others would be to balance those versus the election. But it still will not be an easy path for him in the next few months,” he said.

Aides have described foreign policy as Biden’s “first love” and it remains a topic on which he is both deeply involved inside the White House and eager to discuss in public.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has consumed the vast bulk of his time over the last several months as he works to leverage a decadeslong relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Before that, he spent long days working to corral American allies behind Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

Speaking during a rare Oval Office address in October, Biden sought to explain the stakes of the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine to Americans skeptical of their relevance to the United States.

“I know these conflicts can seem far away, and it’s natural to ask: Why does this matter to America?” Biden said in his speech, which aides had been planning for weeks as a Ukraine-centric address before quickly deciding to include Israel following the October 7 Hamas terror attacks.

“You know, history has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going. And the cost and the threats to America and the world keep rising,” Biden said.

Implicit in Biden’s decision to address the nation about the wars was an acknowledgment that domestic concerns remain at the top of most Americans’ minds, even as his approach to Israel has drawn criticism from members of his own party.

Immediate obstacles

Later this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to the Middle East to continue discussions with Israeli officials about the next phase of the war in Gaza, which American officials have made clear they expect to begin soon.

At the same time, Biden’s aides recognize and believe that Israel must still go after Hamas with the goal of eliminating the terror group altogether, a process that is likely to stretch well into the future.

Meanwhile, Biden’s requests for billions of dollars in new American assistance for Ukraine has been met with resistance from Republicans in Congress, many of whom have taken cues from Trump, who has accused Biden of caring more about foreign conflicts than troubles at home.

“They laugh at our current president. They think he’s a fool and we shouldn’t be there. We shouldn’t be there. We have to protect our own borders first before we defend the borders of foreign countries. We have to get our act together,” Trump told a rally last month in Reno, Nevada.

Exit polls show foreign policy not cracking the top five on voters’ lists of their top issues in the last several cycles. Inflation, abortion, crime, gun policy and immigration were issues voters said were most important during the 2022 midterm election cycle.

Amid the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel, some surveys indicate Americans believe foreign policy should take on more prominence in elections. In an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released this week, about 4 in 10 American adults named foreign policy topics when given an open-ended question about the five issues the US government should work on in the next year.

Still, economic issues and concerns about democracy remain at top of mind for voters, surpassing worries about overseas conflict. As Biden ramps up his election-year pitch, his foreign efforts and his reelection bid are colliding.

“There is a real concern around the world that America is losing its moral center.  There’s a real concern that with America – American principles continue to be the vanguard of who we are,” Biden told the donors in December after recounting the vast amount of time he was spending speaking with foreign leaders.

“Folks, if we do our job in 2024, we’ll be saving what few generations can be able to say: We’ll be saving American democracy in a way that is needed.  And the rest of the world is looking,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional information.


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