President Joe Biden will offer another defense of democracy this week at the annual United Nations General Assembly, the last such global gathering before the stretch run of the U.S. election season — but one already at risk of being overshadowed by messy domestic politics.
Biden will again attempt to rally the world behind Ukraine, but the urgent calls to back Kyiv will be aimed just as much at home where he faces a looming funding fight with House Republicans.
As he meets with world leaders, the president also will be grappling with possibly sweeping economic consequences of the United Auto Workers strike as well as ongoing fallout from the indictment of his son, Hunter, and an impeachment inquiry from Congress. His reelection bid will also be top of mind — and that campaign will likely pit him against someone who challenged the American democracy that Biden will try to showcase to the world during his four days in New York.
“He will lay out to the world the steps that he and his administration have taken to advance a vision of American leadership that is built on the premise of working with others to solve the world’s most pressing problems,” said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, in previewing Biden’s speech on Tuesday.
Sullivan argued that the administration is seeing “a strong demand signal for more American engagement, for more American investment” as well for more American presence “across all continents and all quarters of the world.”
Foreign policy rarely moves votes, and Biden will likely be consumed this week with questions about a looming government shutdown as well the probe into his son. Still, the White House has leaned into Biden’s image as a global statesman, using it as proof of his leadership — and to highlight the revitalization of coalitions left damaged by his predecessor, Donald Trump — as well as his vitality. Biden’s secret trip to Kyiv earlier this year was made into a recent campaign ad designed as a subtle rebuke to critics who believe the 80-year-old president is too frail to do the job.
“This White House is particularly good at finding ‘commander in chief moments’ to break through, even in a fractured media environment,” said Jennifer Palmieri, White House communications director under former President Barack Obama. “The Kyiv trip is the best pushback they have against his age, while trips to Europe and Asia and now the United Nations again establish him as the real leader of the free world.”
Biden is expected to meet Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the gathering, denying the right-wing leader the White House visit he wanted in the wake of a judicial reform that Biden has denounced as anti-democratic. Many in the White House have grown wary of Netanyahu’s leadership even as they may use the Turtle Bay meetings to push for a normalization of relations between longtime foes Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who skipped the G20 two weeks ago, is not expected to travel to New York. And Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be in attendance, either, although Russia maintains its seat on the U.N. Security Council and will wield influence over the proceedings. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will make an appearance, mainly to urge leaders gathered in New York to stay with Kyiv.
Zelenskyy will then travel to Washington to make his case again Thursday at the White House and Capitol Hill. White House aides have long noted that American public support for Ukraine tends to increase after a Zelenskyy set-piece and plan to have the president attempt to capitalize on the visit. The timing has turned out to be ideal, the West Wing believes, at the start of a battle with Republicans who have called for slashing money being sent to the war zone. House Republicans, on Sunday night, introduced a government funding bill without aid for Ukraine included in it.
Biden’s speech Tuesday from the rostrum of the United Nations will be, in part, a pledge to keep supporting Ukraine, his advisers said, and the hope is that his remarks — combined with Zelenskyy’s appearances — will put pressure on Republicans to fund the war.
Trump, the prohibitive favorite to become the GOP presidential nominee, has questioned the need to back Ukraine and repeated a desire to broker a peace deal with Russia quickly. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic assess that Putin is trying to wait out the upcoming U.S. election, believing that his fortunes in the war could change if a Republican commands from the Oval Office.
Congress has already approved $113 billion in aid for Ukraine including around $70 billion for security assistance; more than 90 percent of it has already been spent or assigned. The latest White House request includes $13.1 billion for military aid to Ukraine and replenishment of Pentagon weapons supplies that have been used for the war effort. Some on the right have pushed to draw that down dramatically, one of the possible triggers of a possible government shutdown.
With the U.N. meeting coming so soon after the G20 summit in India, leaders of four of the five countries that hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council are expected to skip the annual event. Their absence may have a welcome side effect for Biden: It could boost his administration’s struggling effort to improve America’s image with less-powerful countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that view the United Nations as a vital forum. It also could help woo those nations away from China and Russia. But Biden risks pushback from some in the West as he scorns globalization and minimizes human rights, while trying to build allied coalitions to solve big and bespoke problems.
There will also be calls for global responses to the ongoing massive disasters in Morocco and Libya as well as a focus on climate change.
While in New York, Biden will also hold a meeting with the U.N. Secretary General, attend a labor event with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and host world leaders for a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And once more mixing in the needs of domestic politics, he will attend several campaign fundraisers.
Alexander Ward, Nahal Toosi and Eli Stokols contributed to this report.