NATO summit becomes high-stakes test of Biden’s fitness

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NATO summit becomes high-stakes test of Biden’s fitness

President Biden’s fitness for office will be put to the test this week during the NATO summit he is hosting in Washington, a high-stakes endurance test that gives the president an opportunity to push back on critics saying he is too old for a second term.

But the frantic debate over Biden’s future — as he tries to contain the fallout from his alarming debate performance last month — risks overshadowing an event aimed at projecting strength against threats from Russia and China. 

“Journalists attending President Biden’s summit press conference will likely not ask one question about NATO but instead ask about the president’s political future,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official focused on NATO policy and a current adjunct senior fellow with the Center for New American Security. 

Biden has been defiant in the wake of increasingly public calls from Democratic lawmakers to drop out of the race and widespread concern behind closed doors that the president is too frail to mount a campaign against former President Trump in the November election.

“I’m running the world,” Biden said during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday — a 22-minute conversation that did little to dispel concerns over Biden’s fitness for office, but did offer the president an opportunity to defend his record of leadership on the global stage. 

“We are the essential nation of the world,” he said. 

The NATO summit, beginning Tuesday and taking place over three days in Washington, D.C., will focus on demonstrating the alliance’s enduring support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia, and signaling deep ties in the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese President Xi Jinping’s designs on subsuming Taiwan. 

Biden is credited with uniting allies in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — a comprehensive effort that has so far endured over two years of war. 

But Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump spurred panic among even ardent supporters, with the president failing to match Trump’s energy with a weak and raspy voice, and trailing off on numerous answers. 

“He’s under a microscope,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Hill.

While Himes’ acknowledged there’s a very real debate going on in the Democratic Party on the way forward for November, he said he didn’t think questions about Biden’s fitness for office would overshadow the summit.

“There’s a shooting battle in Ukraine right now on the edges of NATO, I think that’s the priority of the summit. I hope everyone will keep their focus there.”

White House spokesperson John Kirby on Monday brushed off a question about whether Biden’s poor debate performance late last month would cause trouble with allies, saying it “presupposes the notion that they need to be reassured.”

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” he said. “We’re not picking up any signs of that from our allies at all.”

And Kirby sought to put the focus back on Ukraine, saying that announcements throughout the summit will include new commitments for air defense support for Ukraine, deterrence capabilities to boost NATO and investments in the defense industrial base, including domestically in the U.S. 

He said leaders would also reaffirm that there is a path for Ukraine to join NATO in the future.

But Biden’s presence at the podium and his interactions with world leaders are going to be under close scrutiny as his campaign seeks to convince skeptical Democrats in Congress to stand by him as they return this week from recess. 

The president is expected to meet with newly elected British Prime Minister Keir Starmer on Wednesday, and he will host a dinner with NATO allies beginning at 8 p.m. — a counter to Biden’s reported comments last week to Democratic governors that evening events tend to tire him out. 

On Thursday, Biden will begin a day of meetings at 10 a.m. with NATO allies, and hold a press conference at 5:30 p.m. 

Other high-profile events include the president hosting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and nearly two dozen NATO allies who have signed bilateral security agreements with Kyiv. 

“While the president will have quite a busy schedule, given his commitment as a host of the summit, we’re working to set up several [bilaterals] and meetings with various world leaders on the margins of the summit, including President Zelensky,” a senior administration official said in a call with reporters previewing the summit. 

The summit is also viewed as laying the groundwork to protect the alliance and its support for Ukraine against a potential Trump reelection in November. 

While the U.S. is viewed as an indispensable partner and the de facto leader of the alliance, allies are confronting the reality that Trump may win in November, and the possibility that he could follow through on threats to withdraw from the alliance or hold back U.S. commitments to the Article 5 mutual defense agreement. 

“It is possible that a future U.S. administration will substantially reduce its traditional level of leadership and support for the alliance because of a shift in American domestic politics or a conflict in Asia that consumes U.S. attention and resources,” Karl P. Mueller, senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, said of the challenges facing NATO.

Gian Gentile, associate director of the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, added that “U.S. domestic politics” is a major challenge for the alliance.

“The alliance will have to improve cohesion among NATO states in their aim to help Ukraine win the war,” he said.

A joint communique issued at the end of the summit is expected to lay out how NATO is taking on a bigger leadership role in coordinating support for Ukraine — concerned that a second Trump administration would cut back, or end, robust U.S. military and economic support for Kyiv. 

This includes NATO establishing a command post in Germany to coordinate weapons deliveries among approximately 50 of Kyiv’s supporters — an initiative currently led by the U.S. and called the Ramstein grouping. 

The alliance will also seek pledges from allies to sustain their current level of funding for the next year, and seek to establish a consensus on a baseline of future financial support. 

“These are agreed NATO commitments to deliver on something which is more accountable and more capable,” Jens Stoltenberg, the outgoing NATO secretary-general, said in a roundtable with reporters on Sunday.

Brett Samuels contributed to this report.