MADRID — For nearly a week, President Joe Biden was the star attraction at a pair of European summits, hailed as a steadfast ally while he espoused the vital need for democracies to band together against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But once Air Force One touches down in Washington later Thursday, Biden returns to a starkly different political reality.
The days Biden spent at the G-7 gathering in Germany and the NATO summit in Spain provided a brief oasis for the president, who must confront soaring inflation, surging gas prices, questions about his political future and a rage from his own party about a series of Supreme Court rulings. Despite the domestic turmoil, and dismal poll numbers, Biden rejected the notion that the nation was being doubted on the world stage.
“You haven’t found one person, one world leader, to say America is going backwards. America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been,” Biden told reporters at the conclusion of the NATO summit in Madrid. “The one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States on overruling not only Roe v. Wade, but essentially challenging the right to privacy.”
But the trouble Biden left behind across the Atlantic was what dominated the news conference he held at the end of the trip. The summits had undeniable successes — including an agreement to admit two new members to NATO — yet they struggled to break through a domestic news cycle back home.
White House aides have long conceded that Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine, no matter how vital to global security, will win the president and his party few votes back home. And there is growing concern that patience for sustaining the war effort — both among European allies and American voters — could fade if the conflict stretches into next year, exacerbating record inflation by sending energy and food prices soaring.
But for this week, there was no doubting the worthiness of the cause, with the United States once again the indispensable nation. In the stunning Bavarian Alps, Biden led the leaders of the six wealthiest democracies to push for a measure to cap Russian oil prices while also unveiling a global infrastructure plan meant to pull some of the developing world out from the influence of another authoritarian regime, China. And in sun-splashed Madrid, Biden publicly declared the U.S. would stand with Ukraine while he worked behind the scenes to assuage Turkey’s concerns to pave the way for both Finland and Sweden to join NATO.
Biden declared the alliance would defy Vladimir Putin’s war effort “for as long as it takes,” even if it meant spending billions more on weapons for Ukraine.
“Putin thought he could break the trans-Atlantic Alliance. He tried to weaken us. He expected our resolve to fracture,” Biden said. “But he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”
Not every item on the summits’ wish list was fulfilled, as talk of fighting climate change took a back seat to trying to bolster fossil fuel production. And when asked at the news conference about oil prices, Biden struggled to justify his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, a nation he once deemed a “pariah.” But progress was made, experts said.
“NATO enlargement and plans to increase and move forces is a significant plus,” said Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations. “When it comes to backing Ukraine economically and militarily, it will all depend on what is actually done.”
But Haass warned that the political morass back home “dilutes his ability to lead as they raise questions about both his ability to deliver and the long-term political direction of the United States.”
While Biden was in Europe, anger grew among Democrats who believed he wasn’t doing enough to support a woman’s right to choose. He then made headlines Thursday when he announced, for the first time, that he would support a carveout to the Senate filibuster to protect privacy rights, which includes codifying Roe v. Wade.
“Any president contending with a Supreme Court that is making decisions largely antithetical to most Americans, along with a Senate gridlocked by the filibuster, would face a challenging political landscape. What matters is how you deal with it,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who advised Biden’s transition. “His announcement today that he supports getting rid of the filibuster for privacy issues was smart, timely and has ignited an extra flame under an already fired-up Democratic base.”
But it seemed unlikely the Senate would move on the suggestion, and Biden’s ability to protect abortion rights through executive action was inherently limited. And the court didn’t stop there in its efforts to hinder the president’s priorities.
Days before Biden left for Europe, it issued a decision to weaken gun control laws. Then, just moments after Biden condemned the court on Thursday, the Supreme Court released another ruling viewed as a crushing blow to efforts at combating climate change.
And while the White House has pushed more Democrats to vote in this fall’s midterms, to contribute to larger Democratic margins in Congress, many Americans have been frustrated by the lack of progress from a party that controls that White House and both chambers of Congress.
And though Biden downplayed worries among his international peers, many heads of state openly condemned the Supreme Court’s abortion decision while privately whispering in both Bavaria and Madrid as to whether America would remain a reliable partner after its next series of elections.
“The world knows that we are trouble. Americans know that we are trouble, too,” said Eddie Glaude, professor at Princeton University. “And, to be honest, President Biden best put political calculus aside and fight like hell for a democracy that seems to be in need of life support.”