HANOI, Vietnam — Overseas travel is brutal for the youngest of presidents, much less the oldest.
At the midpoint of the Asia trip that Joe Biden just finished, he looked out at the press corps and made an observation thick with irony: “These five-day trips around the world are no problem.”
Lost sleep wasn’t Biden’s only misfortune. He bungled his whereabouts the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, feeding criticism that at age 80, he is unfit for office.
But he stuck to a whirlwind schedule, visiting India and Vietnam, appearing at a summit of the world’s wealthiest countries, speaking to more than 20 foreign leaders, holding a news conference and courting countries that the United States needs to create a bulwark against Chinese aggression.
That’s a lot for anyone and, as he hurtled across continents, the toll started to show. At the press conference Sunday, he struggled to recount the plot of an unnamed John Wayne movie while making a point about climate change.
On the way home the next day, he stopped in Alaska to mark the anniversary of 9/11. There, he described visiting the wreckage at ground zero in New York one day after the terrorist attack. Yet on that day in 2001, he was in Washington, D.C., delivering remarks on the Senate floor. He and other senators traveled to the site more than a week after the attack. Was that a gaffe born out of fatigue, an honest mistake or an exaggeration from a president with a penchant for dropping himself in the middle of the action? The White House did not comment.
International diplomacy isn’t the only thing on Biden’s mind these days. A family crisis is also weighing on him. The special counsel investigating his son Hunter Biden on gun and tax charges said in a court filing last week that he plans to seek an indictment of the younger Biden by month’s end.
“Are you worried about your son being indicted, Mr. President?” a reporter asked Biden as he was leaving the news conference. Biden kept walking, ignoring the question.
Republicans were quick to pounce on Biden’s performance overseas, zeroing in on scattered moments they’ve been weaving together to make a case that he is unfit to serve another four years. An account run by the Republican National Committee posted a snippet of Biden erroneously saying that he was at ground zero the day after the 9/11 attack.
The White House quickly snapped back. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted video of Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy telling the conservative network’s viewers that Biden had been working “all through the night.”
“Thank you, Peter,” Jean-Pierre wrote.
Questions about Biden’s age are already dogging his re-election bid and any flub tends to get outsize attention. An Associated Press-NORC poll last month showed that 77% believed Biden was too old to serve another term. (Only 51% said GOP front-runner Donald Trump, 77, is too old.)
“The American media makes an international story out of every time Joe Biden trips over,” a former Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s standing with voters.
The chance of a misstep grows when circling the globe at breakneck speed. During a trip to Japan in 2009, President Barack Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, opened a briefing by saying: “I haven’t the slightest idea what time of day or what day it is, so I’ll just start by saying I hope you all are doing well.”
Other presidents found it hard to adjust and looked for ways to cope. Under the heading “Medications,” a brief note from Obama’s physical exam in 2010 reads: “Jet lag/time zone management … occasional medication use.” Obama was 48 at the time.
At the start of his presidency, Ronald Reagan was 69 — nine years younger than Biden at the time of his inauguration. Yet, the White House made accommodations for his advancing age.
In her biography of Nancy Reagan, Karen Tumulty writes about the former first lady’s unhappiness with a European trip that her husband had taken.
Nancy Reagan complained to a senior White House aide and from that point on, “Ronnie was never again over-scheduled abroad,” Tumulty writes. In subsequent trips made by Reagan, more days “would be added to make sure the president made his way across time zones in a leisurely fashion, with time to adjust and arrived rested.” At his wife’s insistence, when Reagan visited China in 1984, he stopped first for rest breaks in California, Hawaii and Guam.
“Mrs. Reagan was very, very focused on the president’s schedule, him having enough downtime and rest time when he arrived before actual meetings started,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “She was just — really after the assassination attempt on his life, she was very, very involved in the schedule.”
White House officials aren’t apologizing for Biden’s packed schedule. If anything, his itinerary was a useful antidote to the GOP argument that he lacks the stamina to do the job.
Consider a five-hour stretch in Hanoi on Monday. After leaving his hotel around 11:30 a.m. local time, Biden held meetings with Vietnam’s president and prime minister; joined another official to watch the exchange of Vietnam War artifacts; visited a memorial site for the late Sen. John McCain who was taken prisoner during the war; and took part in a state lunch in which Vietnamese officials toasted to his health. By 4:15 p.m., he was aboard Air Force One, landing in Anchorage 10 hours later for the 9/11 ceremony.
Exhausting as Biden’s trip may have been, foreign policy experts say that he racked up results. Start with the simple fact that Biden showed up for the G20 summit in New Delhi and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, did not. That in itself was a victory for Biden, some analysts said.
“U.S President Joe Biden stepped into the void left by Xi and secured new infrastructure deals aimed at connecting India, the Middle East and Europe,” Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomic Center, wrote in a blog post about the summit.
Beyond that, Vietnam, a country that borders China, elevated its relationship with the U.S. to its highest tier. Biden also rolled out ambitious infrastructure spending plans that may offer other countries an alternative to the “Belt and Road” initiative that China has used to forge international partnerships.
Even as he made diplomatic moves that undercut Beijing, Biden also made personal overtures to Xi — perhaps to entice him to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November.
“I think there’s real doubt in our mind whether or not Xi Jinping comes to APEC,” Matthew Pottinger, a deputy national security adviser in Trump’s White House, said in an interview.
If Xi decides to come, a face-to-face meeting with Biden would seem inevitable. The two leaders haven’t met in person since the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last year and relations have since grown increasingly strained.
“Well, I hope to see Mr. Xi sooner than later,” Biden said at his news conference. “I’ve spent more time with him than any other world leader has, sum total, over the last 12 years. So, I hope we get to see him soon.”
By then, Biden should be rested.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to bed,” he said shortly before leaving the stage.
CORRECTION (Sept. 12, 2023, 6:08 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the year of Robert Gibbs’ remarks in Japan. It was 2009, not 2008.