Israel, Ukraine, China: Foreign challenges hinder Biden’s re-election bid

Israel’s fight against Hamas, a war in Ukraine that is slipping toward a stalemate and a tenuous detente with China are all competing for the president’s time with less than a year until the 2024 election. (File Photo: Reuters)
Israel’s fight against Hamas, a war in Ukraine that is slipping toward a stalemate and a tenuous detente with China are all competing for the president’s time with less than a year until the 2024 election. (File Photo: Reuters)


Two wars are straining the president’s ability to focus on persuading voters ahead of 2024.

SAN FRANCISCO—During a much-anticipated summit this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at resetting relations between the two powers, President Biden took a briefing from Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, on a completely different topic: the swelling conflict in the Middle East.

Israel’s fight against Hamas, a war in Ukraine that is slipping toward a stalemate and a tenuous detente with China are all competing for the president’s time with less than a year until the 2024 election. As Biden campaigns for a second term, the overlapping crises are complicating his bid to persuade U.S. voters he is focused on the domestic issues they care about most.

The demands were clear in California during meetings that ostensibly were focused on showcasing America’s commitment to nations in the Asia-Pacific region. The two wars featured prominently in Biden’s bilateral discussions with Xi, and world leaders who gathered for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit privately and publicly raised concerns about the conflicts.

Biden, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who has made defending democracy a core tenet of his presidency, has sought to define himself as a capable commander-in-chief who is bringing his decades of foreign-policy experience to bear to help steady a tumultuous planet. People who know him say he relishes playing the role of statesman on the world stage.

But voters overwhelmingly say they are most focused on domestic affairs, particularly the economy. Biden’s decision to involve U.S. money, weaponry and prestige in the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine could cost him at the ballot box. And a CNN poll released this month found that only 36% of voters said Biden was “an effective world leader."

Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said foreign policy “tends not to be a driving issue" for voters but that the administration has an opportunity to use Biden’s efforts to contrast with former President Donald Trump, his chief rival for 2024. “That’s a good split screen, of Trump standing trial in one of four criminal trials versus Biden being on the world stage," Tulchin said.

Biden is increasingly trying to make clear to voters that the events unfolding thousands of miles from America’s shores are relevant to them. Any sign of weakened support for Ukraine could prompt Russia to move aggressively toward other countries in Europe, which could trigger U.S. military involvement. A wider conflict in the Middle East, particularly with Iran, also could draw the U.S. into a regional war. Heightened tensions with China could prompt a deeper trade war that hits American pocketbooks. The consequences for the U.S. and its allies would be even greater if there was a direct military conflict with Beijing over Taiwan, or other disputes.

“We have to keep reminding people about what’s at stake here," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in an interview. “It’s a matter of constantly making sure that people are aware of how these events overseas really do come back home."

But those arguments might not resonate with some voters, who polls show are fixated on prices at home. And Republicans are trying to take advantage. Trump and some GOP lawmakers argue that Biden is going too easy on China, while others in the party say the U.S. shouldn’t continue sending billions of dollars to Ukraine.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the APEC meeting fruitless and criticized Biden for agreeing to Beijing’s demand to remove a Chinese police institute from an export blacklist to secure China’s law-enforcement cooperation on combating fentanyl production. Trump said “the Biden presidency has been one long sellout to Beijing."

China, which the Biden administration has labeled a competitor with the potential power to reshape the global order, has taken up large chunks of bandwidth. Washington and Beijing are perched on opposite sides of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict even as they spar for dominance in advanced technologies. After relations plummeted early this year over a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was detected over North America, the administration sent senior officials to Beijing to rescue ties.

For the administration, Wednesday’s summit with Xi was aimed at managing those tensions. One outcome, Biden said, was an agreement with Xi to call each other when problems arise. The prospect of more stable relations won applause from business executives at a conference held alongside APEC and drew support from leaders of key partners, who raised the other crises around the world.

“It should give a clear message that we are here to be able to work together and trust each other to resolve serious problems—climate issues, Ukraine or Gaza," Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told a business conference. “Countries like Malaysia cannot be forced to see the world and the big powers in the Cold War mindset."

Aside from allies wanting an easing of tensions, keeping rivalry with China in check would give the Biden administration time to address more urgent crises and pursue domestic policies such as rebuilding American manufacturing that are aimed at countering Beijing but could take longer to see through, U.S. officials said. It also would clear time for campaigning when Biden is certain to be pilloried by a Republican opponent for his China policy.

“They want to go into the campaign saying they’re managing the Chinese," said Dennis Wilder, a former U.S. intelligence officer now a senior fellow at Georgetown University.

The president faces a more complex set of political challenges over his steadfast support for Israel. While many voters support Israel, a recent Wall Street Journal survey found many Americans are reluctant for the U.S. to become engaged in the region. Growing numbers of young voters—an important Democratic constituency that already was unenthusiastic about Biden—have faulted Biden for supporting Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack.

Congress will need to decide in the coming weeks how it will proceed on Biden’s roughly $106 billion national security funding request for Israel, Ukraine and other issues. Senate Republicans have demanded changes to U.S. border policy in exchange for supporting the package, and bipartisan talks have yet to yield a compromise.

Past presidents have had to campaign while confronting global crises. George W. Bush launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and won re-election in a close 2004 contest; those two conflicts drove Biden during his 2020 campaign to pledge to end America’s “forever wars." Growing anger over the war in Vietnam influenced Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.

In speeches over the past week, Biden sought to show the tangible benefits of his diplomacy, imploring global corporations to invest in the U.S.

“When you do business with the United States and our companies, you know what you’re getting: high standards, fair practices, protections for workers, world class ideas and innovation and a commitment to deal with the environment—finally," he told a meeting of CEOs. “It’s a quality guarantee."

Biden’s advisers say the president is capable of balancing his foreign and domestic obligations, and they are connecting his many trips abroad to the administration’s economic record. “Strengthening our alliances abroad has helped to secure America’s economic recovery and growth," White House communications director Ben LaBolt said.

The Biden administration is pursuing what it calls a “foreign policy for the middle class." A brainchild of Sullivan, the national security adviser, the idea came out of soul-searching after Trump’s 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton.

Under the approach, according to administration officials, foreign policy is fused with domestic goals to direct investment and create jobs at home. Legislation to promote clean energy and semiconductor manufacturing, credited as Biden successes, are cited as examples.

At the same time, the approach limits U.S. flexibility to use traditional tools of commercial diplomacy, like lowering tariffs and granting better access to the large American market, to win over countries.

Concerns that overseas trade harms American workers have hampered Biden’s efforts to compete with China for influence in the Asia-Pacific. Officials had been hoping to roll out the trade pillar of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a pact involving more than a dozen nations that was set to include soft commitments on trade this week.

But Democratic opposition helped derail the trade measures, themselves already a far cry from attempts to expand market access under the Obama administration. The setback also disappointed officials from Asia-Pacific countries who have been hoping to see the U.S. follow through more substantively on its interest in the region. Biden administration officials said they would keep working on the trade efforts.

Nearly every interaction Biden has with other world leaders features discussions of the range of issues on the president’s plate—whether he likes it or not.

At a meeting Monday at the White House, Biden met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of a burgeoning, Muslim-majority economic power that is at the center of the competition between the U.S. and China for influence in the region. In the Oval Office, Widodo publicly called for a cease-fire in Gaza, a move that Biden has so far rejected.

Write to Andrew Restuccia at, Charles Hutzler at and Andrew Duehren at

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