President Biden seeks to shift focus abroad amid growing concerns at home

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For President Joe Biden, NATO’s 75th anniversary summit couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

The president has long seen himself as a leading defender of global democracy; indeed, he said in his 2020 campaign announcement that he chose to run for president because, “the core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America, is at stake.”

Yet President Biden entered the week at perhaps the lowest point in his presidency to date — still bruised by a widely panned debate performance and facing growing calls for his ouster from the top of the Democratic presidential ticket.

President Biden didn’t address those domestic concerns directly during his welcome remarks to NATO allies Tuesday evening, but his message — promoting unity in the face of division — has taken on new meaning as members of his own party question the future of his reelection campaign.

“Again and again in critical moments, we chose unity over disunity and progress over retreat,” President Biden said. “Here at the summit, again we’re saying, NATO is ready and able to secure that vision today and well into the future.”

According to administration officials, the president has much to tout when it comes to foreign policy achievements. Since he took office, NATO expanded with the inclusion of Sweden and Finland, and the number of members meeting the defense-spending threshold of 2% of their GDP grew from nine in 2020 to an expected 23 this year.

NATO allies are expected to invest more than $175 billion more this year on defense than they did in 2020, officials said, and the alliance has taken significant steps to modernize NATO command and control, implement defense plans, expand industrial capacity, and form a cyberdefense center, among others.

“This is a celebration,” Amb. Julianne Smith, U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told Scripps News in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a moment for all of us to reflect on the importance of this alliance, how it provides peace and stability so that our economies can thrive, and we can look back and think about how the alliance has continually adapted itself to face all sorts of challenges.”

An “irreversible path” to Ukraine in NATO

Beyond such celebrations, the true focus of the NATO summit is Russia’s war in Ukraine, with President Biden announcing allies will send new air defense measures as well as commit to an “irreversible path” to Ukraine’s eventual entry into the NATO alliance.

“Ukraine really is the undercurrent here for this NATO Summit,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told Scripps News.

The summit declaration states, “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” going on to affirm, “As Ukraine continues this vital work, we will continue to support it on its irreversible path to full Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership.”

“They are not going to get membership this week in Washington ,D.C.,” Amb. Smith conceded. “First and foremost, we want the war in Ukraine to end and we want Ukraine to undertake the necessary reforms to join the alliance, but they are on their way. We are building a bridge to membership, not just in words but in deeds.”

That “bridge” includes a pledge for long-term security assistance, the expectation of F-16’s flying in Ukraine this summer, the establishment of a training center, further NATO coordination and more strategic air defense systems, including Patriot batteries.

“That’s a big deal given what you’ve seen with these horrific strikes,” said Amb. Michael Carpenter, senior director for Europe at the U.S. National Security Council.

Ahead of the start of the summit, a Russian missile struck a children’s hospital in Kyiv, killing at least 42 people.

While the U.S. has allowed Ukraine to strike across the border with Western-supplied weapons to defend its territory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for greater flexibility to strike targets within Russia.

“Imagine how much we can achieve when all limitations are lifted,” Zelenskyy said Tuesday. “If American leadership makes a step forward and allows us to destroy Russian military aircraft on their bases, this will also yield an instant result. And we are waiting for this step.”

However, U.S. officials have been firm that their policy isn’t changing when it comes to authority to strike deeper into Russian territory.

“At the end of the day, Ukraine will not be able to overcome the strategic depth that Russia enjoys. Russia is an immense country. It is 11 time-zones wide from east to west, and so to be able to give Ukraine the capabilities to range every airfield in the Russian Federation is probably unrealistic,” Carpenter said, noting officials are engaging with Ukrainians to focus on degrading Russian forces.

President Biden is set to meet one-on-one with Zelenskyy on Thursday, before participating in an event with other NATO allies pertaining to the “Ukraine Compact” — a roadmap to develop Ukraine’s future forces through the end of the decade.

Asked about the president’s message to the Ukrainian president, Kirby said it would be one of optimism and collaboration.

“We’re with you and we’re going to stay with you, and he’ll talk about some of the additional security assistance packages that the United States is going to be prepared to provide Ukraine,” Kirby said. “He’s also going to talk about where this goes in the future.”

Growing calls for Biden’s ouster

The NATO summit has served as a moment for President Biden to tout the rallying of support, expansion of the alliance and increase in defense spending under his administration. But as President Biden rallies his allies, he’s also working to solidify support from within his own party amid his reelection bid in the backdrop.

Despite the incumbent’s intent to shift the focus to foreign wars, concerns about President Biden’s fitness have persisted. The so-called “family photo” of all NATO leaders Wednesday morning, for example, was capped off with reporters shouting questions about former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s remarks earlier that day suggesting “time is running short” for President Biden to decide whether he’s running for office again.

President Biden, who has repeatedly stressed he is seeking reelection, left such questions unanswered, save an optimistic fist-bump gesture.

On Wednesday, three more members of Congress joined the growing number of Democratic lawmakers — now at 11 — calling for President Biden to step aside. Among them was Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont, the first U.S. senator to publicly call for President Biden to step aside. “I understand why President Biden wants to run,” Welch wrote in The Washington Post. “He saved us from Donald Trump once and wants to do it again. But he needs to reassess whether he is the best candidate to do so. In my view, he is not.”

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The Biden campaign has repeatedly brushed aside concerns about President Biden’s odds, dismissing polls that show him slipping in swing states as anomalies, and suggesting it’s still a “tight race.”

Several top Biden advisers will meet with Democratic senators at the Capitol on Thursday, Scripps News confirmed, part of a continued effort to engage with lawmakers, mayors and donors following his debate performance.

But even in political appearances outside the foreign policy space, President Biden has referenced the NATO summit and his foreign policy credentials.

“I think of you as my domestic NATO — not a joke,” he told the executive council of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of trade unions, on Wednesday. The group later unanimously voted to “reaffirm its commitment” to reelecting President Biden in November.

Inside the multilateral meetings, officials maintain there are different conversations taking place with foreign leaders.

“The conversations that we’re having with foreign leaders, again in these early hours of the summit, are really about what we — you and I — have been talking about: how to support Ukraine, how to make NATO stronger and more unified, how to stand up to Putin and dictators around the world. That’s been the focus of the conversations,” Kirby told Scripps News. The NSC official earlier in the week had attested to President Biden’s fitness for office, telling reporters the president is “completely in charge of facts and figures.”

President Biden’s capacities will be on full display Thursday when he’s scheduled to participate in a solo press conference — his first since last November. It’s something his detractors have been calling for since his debate debacle.

“President Biden’s NATO press conference is the first on-camera unscripted opportunity since the George Stephanopoulos interview to show everyday voters and down-ballot Democrats that he can take the fight vigorously to Donald Trump,” Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told Scripps News in an email. “He should embrace every opportunity he can to show vigor on camera in unscripted environments — American democracy could depend on it.”

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