By Phil Mattingly, CNN
Thirty-seven minutes after wrapping up a late-night gala dinner with Asian leaders — punctuated by plates of wild Mekong lobster and beef saraman — an aide handed President Joe Biden the phone.
On the other end of the line was David Trone, the millionaire Maryland wine retailer who was thousands of miles and a time zone 12 hours away and had just clinched another term in the House.
The call wasn’t long, a person familiar with it said, but reflected the warmth and enthusiasm Biden had deployed dozens of times in calls to winning candidates over the last week — each one further solidifying a midterm election that dramatically reshaped the prevailing view of his presidency.
“There wasn’t anybody who wasn’t running on what we did,” Biden told reporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, shortly after Democrats clinched another two years of Senate control — and another round of congratulatory calls. “So I feel good, and I’m looking forward to the next couple of years.”
As Washington grapples with the domestic repercussions of a voter-induced electoral earthquake that kept the Senate in Democratic hands and has put the inevitability of Republican House control on the shakiest of ground, the most significant near-term effect is palpable here, on Biden’s long-scheduled foreign trip where the first face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping looms.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan provided a glimpse into dynamics of the moment, pointing to the fact “that many leaders took note of the results of the midterms, came up to the president to engage him and to say that they were following them closely.”
As Biden met with Asian leaders in the lead up to his meeting with Xi, those conversations provided a critical boost.
“I would say one theme that emerged over the course of the two days was the theme about the strength of American democracy and what this election said about American democracy,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden traveled from Phnom Penh to Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 Summit.
White House officials, even those who braced for losses in the weeks leading up to election day, have cast aside any reticence to take to their Twitter accounts or to TV interviews to call out pundits and politicians who predicted otherwise.
It’s a reflection — abroad and back in Washington — of a team that officials acknowledge feels constantly underestimated and has long coveted unambiguous success after a relentless and crisis-infused first 21 months in office.
But on the other side of the world, Biden’s advisers say there has been a tangible effect tied to election results that, had they matched historical trends, threatened to undermine his standing ahead of the most consequential meeting of his first two years.
A very different split-screen moment
White House officials had been circling the G-20 as the likely sit-down with Xi for months. There were intensive preparations between the two sides in the lead up to announcing the engagement publicly. The tenuous state of the relationship necessitated a sit down, regardless of domestic politics.
In the weeks leading up to the election, White House advisers downplayed the effect sweeping midterm losses would have on the weight of Biden’s presence and message abroad, citing the same historical trends they would later buck.
But privately, multiple people familiar with the matter said, there was an awareness of the potential split screen of a US president grappling with his party’s political defeat at the same moment Xi would arrive in Bali at the peak of his power in the wake of the Community Party Congress, during which he secured a norm-breaking third term in power.
“Perception matters and so does political standing,” one US official said. “It’s not the be-all, end-all, and it was never a central focus or driver of the dynamics, but we’re well aware of the fact everyone was watching this election around the world.”
Far from a liability, however, each of the congratulatory calls back home have underscored the driving wind at the back of a president who enters the meeting with Xi at a moment where US-China relations appear to be inching away from great power competition toward inevitable conflict.
Asked if the results put him in a stronger position heading into the meeting, Biden didn’t hesitate.
“I know I’m stronger,” Biden said, before noting that given his long-standing relationship with Xi formed during their times as their nations’ vice president that the results weren’t a necessity for the meeting to achieve its goals. US officials are also careful not to overstate the effect on a trip — and in a region — where the layers of complexity and challenges far exceed what voters decide in a congressional district or swing state.
Biden aims to highlight US democracy against Xi’s autocracy
Yet Biden isn’t subtle about his sweeping view of the geopolitical stakes of a moment he’s repeatedly framed as a generational “inflection point,” centered on the battle between democracy and autocracy.
While his advisers have moved to frame that construct broadly, Biden has made clear the leading autocracy that animates the strategy and policy across nearly every corner of his administration is Xi’s China.
Implicit in a White House mood that has only seemed to grow more buoyant with each new day of called races, the election results prove Biden’s theory of the case is, to some degree, actually working — that an American political landscape that served to rattle allies and foes alike over the last several years was, in fact, stabilizing.
Biden has put the high-stakes competition with China at the center of his engagements with foreign leaders, pressing allies by phone and in person to take a sharper line. US officials have sought new pathways to gain the upper hand in the proxy economic and technological competition happening between the two powers over developing regions and neutral parties.
But officials have also experienced an unmistakable — and according to many, understandable — hesitancy.
“What I find is that they want to know: Is the United States stable? Do we know what we’re about? Are we the same democracy we’ve always been?” Biden said at his post-election news conference as he described his conversations with world leaders.
Midterms provide Biden the validation he’s wanted
Up until Election Day, allies and foes alike were in large part left to take Biden at his word when he attempted to answer those questions with an emphatic, “Yes.”
Former President Donald Trump, whose election lies had driven the assault on the US Capitol, hadn’t faded away and he remained the most powerful figure inside the Republican Party.
Biden had navigated the narrowest of congressional majorities to enact a sweeping domestic agenda, a chunk of which was done on a bipartisan basis. Yet he still held an approval rating in the low 40s, weighed down by four-decade high inflation and a population exhausted by years careening from crisis to crisis.
The possibility that Biden would face the same harsh judgment of his first two years in office as nearly all his recent predecessors wasn’t just likely. It was expected.
Instead, as he moved through bilateral meetings and pull-asides, gala dinners and summit gatherings, Biden’s own political vindication served another purpose for his approach on the world stage: Validation.
Biden “feels that it does establish a strong position for him on the international stage and we saw that I think play out in living color today,” Sullivan told reporters after Biden departed the ASEAN-US Summit, as the Xi meeting loomed. “I think we’ll see that equally when we head into both the G20 and to his bilateral engagements in Bali.”
Biden’s final day in Phnom Penh included a pull-aside meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and critical meetings with the leaders of Japan and South Korea — all of which included a focus on China.
But in between, he found a couple of minutes to hop back on the phone.
Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, who faced a tough reelection battle in a redrawn district, had secured another term in office. Biden needed to pass along his congratulations.
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