At every turn, Biden faced questions — from reporters and other foreign leaders — about the debt limit crisis in Washington that threatens to upend the global economy. Then came the surprise in-person appearance by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the G-7 summit, which immediately eclipsed other topics on the leaders’ agenda.
Those twin developments attracted far more attention than the progress Biden made in rallying the allied leaders for an unusually strong statement criticizing China. Because Biden had scrapped planned stops in Papua New Guinea and Australia to return to Washington for the debt ceiling fight, he had little opportunity to elevate China again on the trip.
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In his final appearance at the Group of Seven on Sunday, Biden started with the issue that had truncated his trip even before it began: the looming debt crisis.“Before turning to the important work we accomplished here at the G-7, I want to take a few minutes to address the budget negotiations that I’m heading back home to deal with,” Biden said.
The president then dove into the details of the negotiations — slamming Republicans for not moving off their “extreme positions,” touting his administration’s efforts to cut costs, and trying to poke holes in the Republican argument about spending cuts.
It was a familiar experience for Biden. Domestic events have routinely overshadowed his foreign trips and efforts to focus on global priorities. The G-7 summit last year, for example, took place just days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, thrusting the issue of abortion to the forefront.
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This year, the inability of Republicans and Democrats to strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling — the limit on what the nation can borrow to pay its existing bills and obligations — ahead of a deadline that could arrive in less than two weeks spooked financial markets and foreign leaders, who fear a global economic catastrophe if the United States defaults.
Biden could rarely avoid questions about the impasse from the moment he landed in Japan on Thursday to the moment he departed on Sunday
“It is definitely a subject of interest here at the G-7,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters Saturday. “You know, countries want to have a sense of how these negotiations are going to play out.”
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Initially, the president tried to ignore the questions. During his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Biden did not answer inquiries about the status of the negotiations.
But he eventually engaged, telling reporters he was still optimistic a deal could be reached ahead of the deadline.
“I still believe we’ll be able to avoid a default, and we’ll get something decent done,” he said Saturday before a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Throughout the trip, Biden was receiving regular updates from his staff on the status of the negotiations. The White House posted a photo Friday of Biden, flanked by aides, participating in a Zoom call with staffers in Washington, including the three advisers tasked with leading negotiations with Republicans.
But throughout Biden’s trip, the debt talks unfolding more than 7,000 miles away kept hitting snags.
Congressional Republicans walked out of negotiations on Friday, blaming the White House for not agreeing to make significant cuts to federal spending, a sticking point for the GOP. The talks resumed hours later.
On Saturday, Republicans rejected a White House offer to limit spending next year for both military and a wide range of domestic programs. And later that day, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he thought it would be difficult to resume negotiations until Biden returned from his trip.
“We gave a counterproposal to the counterproposal,” Biden said Sunday during his news conference. “I know this is sounding ridiculous, but that’s what we did.”
While the ups-and-downs of the debt talks were made themselves felt in Hiroshima, a dramatic visit by Zelensky, who compared the atomic of 1945 with the devastation in his own country, became its emotional focus.
Biden is not the first president to face domestic head winds while traveling abroad, or to face the need to cancel a trip altogether. President Barack Obama skipped a trip to Indonesia and Brunei in 2013 during tough budget negotiations, and President Bill Clinton canceled a trip to Japan in 1995 amid an earlier debt-limit showdown.
President Donald Trump canceled several trips during his presidency, including a planned visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, due to a partial government shutdown.
But Biden, who can struggle to command the bully pulpit as forcefully as some of his predecessors, has faced unique challenges in drawing attention to his international priorities while traveling.
On his recent trip to Ireland, which was light on diplomatic engagement and heavy on Biden family lore, the president had to contend with a massive leak of highly classified intelligence documents and persistent questions on whether he would run for president again.
On a previous trip to Japan in May 2022, Biden left voicing excitement about the progress in the region. But as he was flying back home, an 18-year-old gunman fatally shot 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Despite the debt diversions, the president’s efforts on China yielded results, as the G-7 communiqué included harsher language toward China than usual, criticizing the country on a range of topics including economic coercion, human rights violations and activity in the East and South China seas. The allied leaders also called on China to “to press Russia to stop its military aggression, and immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Ukraine.”
But Biden’s expected stops in Papua New Guinea and Australia had been seen as important steps in solidifying the Biden administration’s concerted efforts to counter Beijing’s growing influence.
Biden would have been the first sitting U.S. president to visit Papua New Guinea and was set to attend a summit of the Quad — which includes Australia, India and Japan, as well as the U.S. — in Sydney. Given the cancellation of the Australia leg of his trip, Biden held an abbreviated meeting with the Quad leaders in Hiroshima.
As Biden departed Japan, he made clear he was squarely focused on finding a way to avoid a historic and potentially catastrophic default. He even had a call scheduled with McCarthy for his flight back to Washington on Air Force One.
“I’m hoping that Speaker McCarthy is just waiting to negotiate with me when I get home,” Biden said. “I’m waiting to find out.”