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Much at stake for Biden as NATO leaders gather in Washington

Biden hosts NATO leaders
White House hosts NATO leaders as questions remain about Biden's future 03:12

Washington — NATO leaders gathering in Washington starting Tuesday plan to shore up transatlantic support for Ukraine in its battle against Russia. But for the host, President Biden, the summit has become just as much about demonstrating he's capable of meeting the grinding demands of the presidency for four more years.

Heads of state from Europe and North America are confronting the prospect of the return to the Oval Office of NATO skeptic Donald Trump as Mr. Biden tries to save his reelection campaign, which has been in a tailspin following a disastrous June 27 debate performance against Trump

The president said his work at the summit, where NATO is celebrating 75 years, would be a good way to judge his continued ability to do the job. He points to his work rallying NATO members in its stiff response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a prime example of his steady leadership and among the reasons he deserves another four years in the White House. Opening the summit, the president spoke with a much stronger, firmer voice than he did during the debate, harkening back to the alliance's history and laying out the challenges ahead. 

"The American people know that all the progress we've made in the past 75 years has happened behind the shield of NATO," the president said. "And Americans understand what would happen if there was no NATO."

Biden speaks at NATO Summit
President Biden speaks during an event commemorating the 75th Anniversary of NATO, in Washington on July 9, 2024. Susan Walsh / AP

The president insisted NATO is as important now as it ever was, citing terrorist threats and Russia's two-year-old war on Ukraine. The president announced a donation of air defense equipment for Ukraine from the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Italy. In the coming months, the U.S. and her partners will provide Ukraine with dozens of additional tactical air defense systems, he said. 

"We know Putin won't stop at Ukraine. But make no mistake — Ukraine can and will stop Putin," the president said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Especially with our full, collective support. They have our full support." 

The president also lauded the addition of Finland and Sweden to the alliance and the significant uptick in the number of NATO nations meeting defense spending targets. 

A major focus not just for reporters but for Democratic lawmakers will be the president's press conference at the conclusion of the summit. 

Making his case  

Mr. Biden is in a blitz to persuade voters, Democrats and donors that he's still up to the job. He's been making his case on the campaign trail, in a defiant letter to Democratic lawmakers and during friendly media interviews over the last several days. Still, he faces skepticism from some longtime allies.

Several Democratic House members have publicly called on the president to quit his campaign, other lawmakers in private conversations have urged him to step aside, and several high-profile donors have raised concerns about his viability in the race.

But in the letter he sent Monday to congressional Democrats, Mr. Biden said he is "firmly committed" to staying in the race and made clear that he wouldn't be running again if he "did not absolutely believe I was the best person to beat Donald Trump in 2024."

Mr. Biden also spoke to Democratic donors in a call, saying he was done talking about the debate, according to a CBS News source familiar with the discussion during the call. "I'm not going anywhere and I'm going to beat Trump," he said in the call, which came hours after the letter went out.   

The White House hopes to display to wobbly Democrats that Mr. Biden still has what it takes during what's expected to be a busy few days of formal summit meetings, sideline chats with leaders, long diplomatic dinners and receptions and a summit-ending press conference.

Several senior administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations say the president displays a strong grasp of the broader issues — Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the threat posed by China — but on specific and incremental actions that countries or groups may take when it comes to these conflicts, Mr. Biden has appeared to be at worst confused or has not seemed to have a keen grasp on how to handle them.

However, the officials say there isn't — at least not yet — a crisis in confidence over his general mental state.

The summit will give Mr. Biden his first chance to meet face-to-face with new British Prime Minister Keir Starmer. The president called Starmer last week to congratulate him on his win, and plans to host him Wednesday for talks at the White House.

The Labour Party leader had no concerns about Mr. Biden's mental acuity during their phone call, according to a spokesman for the prime minister who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private call.

The gathering of the leaders from the 32 NATO countries — plus Pacific partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, as well as Ukraine — is expected to be one of Mr. Biden's last appearances at an international forum before Election Day and comes before next week's Republican National Convention in Milwaukee.

Biden and Trump's different takes on NATO   

Mr. Biden has sought to spotlight his commitment to the alliance while making the case to voters that Trump would turn his back on NATO if he were to return to the White House.

Trump has repeatedly criticized fellow NATO members who failed to meet an agreed-upon goal of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense. European anxiety was heightened in February when Trump warned NATO allies in a campaign speech that he "would encourage" Russia " to do whatever the hell they want" to countries that don't meet defense spending goals if he returns to the White House.

Trump has criticized Mr. Biden for providing an "endless flow of American treasure" to Ukraine. The Republican more recently has expressed openness to lending money instead and has said Ukraine's independence is important to the United States.

Biden aides have pushed back, noting NATO's announcement last month that 23 of 32 member nations are hitting the alliance's defense spending target this year. Nine member nations were meeting the goal when Mr. Biden took office in 2021.

The president has also taken credit for the expansion of NATO. Both Finland and Sweden have joined in the aftermath of Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

"That's not by accident," White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. "That's because of leadership. That's because of a constant stewardship of the alliance and other partnerships around the world. The president's record speaks for itself."

NATO is expected to announce details of Ukraine's pathway to membership into the alliance during the summit. NATO, which is built around the foundational agreement that an attack on one member is an attack on all members, has maintained it won't bring Ukraine into the fold until after the conflict with Russia ends.

Kirby said leaders will also discuss efforts to set up a coordination center in Germany to help train, equip and coordinate logistics for Ukraine forces for its expected eventual accession into NATO.

The U.S. and allies plan to unveil steps during the summit to strengthen Ukraine's air defenses and military capabilities to help it deter Russian aggression, Kirby said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the world must not wait for the November presidential election to take action to repel Russia's offensive against his country.

"It's time to step out of the shadows to make strong decisions to act and not wait for November or any other months to descend. We must be strong and uncompromising all together," Zelenskyy said in his address at the NATO summit Tuesday.

He added that Mr. Biden must be "uncompromising in defending democracy, uncompromising against Putin and his coterie." 

Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Washington thinktank the Atlantic Council, said Mr. Biden needs to use the summit to "significantly reverse the impression" that he left with his poor debate performance.

"This is an immense opportunity for him to lead with vigor and energy, to underscore his commitment, the administration's commitment, for that matter Congress' commitment to the alliance and to underscore that he brings to the table the resolve that has made NATO so successful," Brzezinski said.

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