NUSA DUA – For President Joe Biden, an international trip scheduled for just days after the midterm election looked like it would offer an escape hatch, allowing him to jet far away as he faced what many thought would be a crushing verdict from voters.
Instead his journey, which included stops in Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia, turned into an around-the-world victory lap. Biden spent the trip making congratulatory calls to Democrats who fared better than expected in the midterms, emboldening him during three global summits where he pushed for stronger action on climate change, closer economic ties in Asia and greater condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
After facing doubts at home and abroad over his insistence that the United States is turning the page on his chaotic predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden’s contention that “America is back” appeared more durable than ever.
“At this critical moment,” Biden said at a press conference in front of a Balinese temple in Indonesia, “no nation is better positioned to help build the future we want than the United States of America.”
As Biden returns from his trip, though, he faces daunting challenges to his presidency, including worries about a potential recession and questions over whether he should run for a second term. Because of inflation and other factors, Americans will sit down to more expensive Thanksgiving dinners next week.
And although Democrats will keep control of the Senate, Republicans have won a narrow majority in the House, giving them a chance to block Biden’s legislative agenda and launch investigations of his administration.
Those concerns receded from view, at least temporarily, with Biden overseas and as Republicans plunged into recriminations over who was responsible for their party’s weak performance in the midterms. Some pointed fingers at Trump, whose chosen candidates largely fell short across the country.
When Trump officially launched another presidential campaign on Tuesday night, Biden was at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, the last stop on his trip. He brushed off the news as he gathered with world leaders to plant mangrove trees, a symbol of strength and resilience.
Biden exchanged looks with French President Emmanuel Macron — a faint smirk, perhaps — as reporters asked if he had any response to the announcement,
“No, not really,” he said.
The carefully choreographed trip was interrupted by a missile that landed in Poland as the G-20 summit was underway. Two people died, raising fears that the war in neighboring Ukraine could spread beyond its borders, and speculation quickly spread that Russia was responsible.
Several time zones away, Biden was awakened by staff with the news. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and khakis, he worked the phones at dawn, then suited up for a hastily arranged meeting with allied leaders.
Biden said afterward that it was unlikely the missile came from Russia and pledged to "make sure we figure out exactly what happened.” Officials in Poland and at NATO later said the strike did not appear to be intentional and was probably launched by air defenses in neighboring Ukraine, and the U.S. concurred.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said Biden made the right moves in a dangerous situation by expressing solidarity with Poland but not rushing to conclusions.
The administration, he said, “played it right.”
For the White House, it was another opportunity for Biden to demonstrate a steady hand on the international stage during his trip.
“Joe Biden doesn’t just talk about America leading the world – he has rebuilt America’s world leadership, and over the past week the American people saw this,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president.
Still, the Poland incident was a reminder of how precarious the situation in Europe remains, months after the war began. Kyiv has retaken some territory seized by Moscow, but progress remains uncertain as winter approaches. There's also pressure to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict even though Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil.
Biden’s efforts to marginalize Moscow at the G-20 summit appeared successful.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend, and his emissary, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, played a minimal role at the gathering. The U.S. also secured a declaration of firm condemnation of the war in the summit’s final communique, plus a warning that the conflict is worsening an already delicate world economy.
It was a notably strong denunciation in spite of divisions within the group, which includes not only Russia but also countries such as China and India that have significant trade ties with Moscow and have stopped short of outright criticism of the war.
The centerpiece of Biden's visit to Indonesia was not the summit itself, but his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the two leaders have spoken multiple times, they had not met in person since Biden took office two years ago.
While there were no watershed breakthroughs, Biden secured from Xi a condemnation of Russian nuclear threats in Ukraine and the resumption of lower-level cooperation from China on a range of shared global challenges, from climate to economic policy. Meanwhile, he delivered a public rebuke of China’s human rights violations and its threats against Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers part of its own territory.
Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said Biden arrived in Indonesia “more empowered” and "politically energized.”
Earlier this year, there were more worries about America’s political trajectory as Trump plotted a comeback. Asian countries wondered, Yeo said, “when you have these deals with the United States, how stable are they?”
Now those concerns have lessened.
“Democrats have a stronger hand and they can be a little more confident," he said.
Before visiting Indonesia, Biden attended a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia, part of his effort to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region. He met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, two allies who have occasionally been at odds with each other, to talk about North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
Biden's shortest stop on his trip was in Egypt, where he spent only three hours at an annual United Nations conference on climate change, but it was perhaps where his reversal of fortunes was on clearest display.
During last year's climate summit, which took place in Scotland, Biden's environmental agenda was stalled in Congress. This time, Biden could point to a new law that he signed to invest in clean energy initiatives.
"The United States government is putting our money where our mouth is," he said.
Even as the White House girds for a period of divided government in Washington, administration officials see plenty of opportunity for their critics to make missteps along the way.
Dunn said Biden was willing to work with Republicans, but "the real question is whether Republicans are ready to work with him for the priorities of the people, or just use the next two years on political vendettas.”
In a statement Wednesday night, Biden congratulated Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on the GOP's House victory, saying he was ready to work with them to “deliver results for working families.”
Now Biden, who turns 80 on Sunday, has to decide whether to run for a second term. He has said he intends to do so but wants to talk it over with his family. An announcement could come early next year.
A recent AP-NORC poll, conducted before the midterms, showed that just 5 in 10 Democrats want Biden to seek a second term.
Cedric Richmond, who worked in the White House before becoming a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said the midterms were a demonstration of Biden's political strength and validation of a record that gives the president a good foundation for another term.
“This president has done an extremely effective job," he said. "He’s accomplished things that other Democratic presidents and leaders have not been able to accomplish.”
Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, said it would be tough to deny Biden the nomination if he sought it again.
"Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what advice the president is getting,” he said. "If he wants to run, he’s going to run.”
Megerian reported from Washington.