HIROSHIMA: The sight of a tired-looking top White House domestic policy adviser in a Hiroshima hotel said it all: President Joe Biden may be on the other side of the world but his political fight back home over the debt ceiling has followed him.

Bruce Reed, spotted in a tracksuit having a late breakfast at the luxury hotel where Biden was staying during the G7 summit, is the White House deputy chief of staff with a focus on issues inside the United States.

Instead, for the last two days he has trailed the 80-year-old Democratic president around this southern Japanese city, “updating POTUS on the status of the talks”, as a senior official put it.

Those “talks” — the White House demanding that the annual extension of the government’s borrowing authority proceed in order to avoid a US default and Republicans demanding Democrats first agree to slash spending — were something everyone at the G7 wanted updates on.

“It is definitely a subject of interest here at the G7,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Saturday, exuding his customary intense calm.

Sullivan insisted that the debt talks had not been “generating alarm or a kind of vibration in the room” at the summit.

And Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that it’s not a “hair-on-fire type of situation”.

Yet those reassurances belie the White House’s own apocalyptic warnings.

“Republicans are taking the economy hostage and pushing us to the brink of default, which could cost millions of jobs and tip the country into recession after two years of steady job and wage growth,” Biden communications director Ben LaBolt said Saturday.

Biden walks fine line

Biden has spent the entire summit trying to walk that same fine line.

On the one hand, he wants the world to know that everything will be OK. On the other, he’s signalling that he’s extremely worried.

The crisis prompted Biden to cancel half of his planned Asia trip, thereby allowing him to get on Air Force One and start the return trip to Washington on Sunday.

This meant scrapping what would have been a historic first trip by a sitting US president to the remote island nation of Papua New Guinea, as well as a heavyweight diplomatic stop for a regional Quad group meeting in Australia.

Biden also skipped much of the G7 dinner on an idyllic island near Hiroshima on Friday.

The White House said Biden was going back to his hotel to check with negotiators in Washington, where it was morning.

He’d already touched base by secure video link as the team was finishing up the previous evening and he was on the phone with them again Saturday.

“He’s being kept up to date daily... multiple times a day,” Jean-Pierre said.

When asked by reporters Saturday if he was concerned, however, Biden breezily answered: “Not at all.”

‘A little thing’

The Group of 7 meeting in Japan is an important stage for Biden’s goal of restoring US leadership among the world’s democracies, particularly when it comes to confronting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

The aborted visits to Papua New Guinea and Australia were meant to emphasise the trip’s other goal of forging a united front against a rising communist China.

So the last thing the White House wants to see is headlines like The Washington Post’s recent, “World watches in disbelief and horror as US nears possible default”.

And it’s not just the immediate dysfunction in Washington spooking US partners. There’s 2024 and Biden’s re-election attempt.

His main rival for now is none other than former president Donald Trump, who does not seem to care about the risk of a US debt default.

“Do not fold!!!” Trump told Republicans on social media on Friday. “Republicans should not make a deal on the debt ceiling unless they get everything they want.”

Going into a bilateral meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Saturday, Biden told him, “I truly apologise to you for having to meet here instead of coming to Australia.”

“We have a little thing going on at home,” Biden said.

Albanese, at least, was understanding. “I would have done exactly the same thing,” the Australian leader replied. “All politics is really local.”

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2023

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