President Joe Biden speaks on the debt ceiling at the White House on May 9, 2023 in Washington, DC, following a meeting with congressional lawmakers as they continue to negotiate to avoid a government default.
CNN  — 

It happens to every American president: a trip abroad gets derailed when crises are unfolding at home.

With the US economy hanging in the balance, President Joe Biden departs this week for a week-long visit to Asia. He’s acknowledged the trip may be scrapped as negotiations on raising the nation’s borrowing limit in order to avert a historic default slog forward with congressional Republicans, an effort he called the “single most important thing” on his agenda.

Privately, however, Biden has told his team skipping this week’s Group of 7 summit in Japan should be a last-resort option only and could send the wrong signal – both to his Republican interlocutors and to foreign allies to whom he has repeatedly insisted “America is back.”

“We’re planning to conduct this trip as scheduled,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, during a briefing with reporters Monday. “Look, on any presidential trip – doesn’t matter where he goes or when – I mean, events back home and around the world can affect travel. But right now, there’s no plans to curtail the trip or cut it short or to not go.”

Even if his visits to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia go ahead, however, the looming debt default will still shadow Biden’s attempts to cultivate critical relationships and restore American leadership. The effects of an American default would reverberate throughout an already unsteady global economy. World leaders already enter the talks with their own concerns about Biden economic policies they say are overly protectionist.

His team has not yet made extensive contingency plans for the trip to be canceled and are instead proceeding as if it is still happening. So far, foreign officials say they are expecting to see Biden in person in Japan later this week.

If Biden were to skip this week’s G7, he would likely still participate virtually, aides said. The G7 has met that way repeatedly over the course of the war in Ukraine, often producing results like new sanctions.

Biden places a premium on in-person interactions, particularly with high-level leaders like those who will be gathering in Hiroshima later this week. At his first G7 meeting in 2021, he told counterparts gathered on the Cornish coast that American leadership was back – to some skepticism from the leaders gathered around the table.

This week’s trip will be Biden’s first time abroad since announcing his reelection bid in April. A grueling, multi-stop swing through Asia is precisely the image of presidential stamina his aides hope to use to rebut concerns over his advanced age.

Some Biden aides worry that abandoning his travel plans to remain in Washington could look like a concession to Republicans, who have been demanding spending negotiations in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

Others wonder what message would be sent to world leaders, observing the debt limit standoff from afar and nurturing their own concerns about American political stability.

The White House has made clear that defaulting on US obligations would have damaging effects that stretch well beyond economic concerns.

“That would certainly, from a national security perspective, have a detrimental effect,” said Kirby of a potential US default. “Certainly in terms of our reputation and standing around the world, it sends a horrible message to nations like Russia and China who would love nothing more than to be able to point at this and say: ‘See? The United States is not a reliable partner, the United States is not a stable leader of peace and security around the world.’”

Biden’s team has taken to describing the G7 as the “steering committee of the free world,” and the White House views the grouping as among the most effective in dealing with global issues, including Russia and China.

Because Japan, the only Asian member of the G7, is hosting this year’s summit, China is due to loom larger than usual. Members are expected to sign on to a statement condemning Beijing’s economic practices.

At previous G7 summits, the issue of China has proved contentious. Some European leaders are cautious of a major confrontation with Beijing. But candid, in-person conversations among the group have yielded a more collective approach.

Any decision on skipping the summit is likely to be made later this week, after Biden sits down with congressional leaders on Tuesday at the White House. That meeting will provide the president and his team a gauge of how far apart the two sides are and whether remaining in Washington would help move along the negotiation.

Aides also point out the president will still be available on the phone if negotiations ramp up while he is abroad.

Biden said Sunday he still planned on leaving this week for the G7.

“That’s my plan as it stands now,” he said during a bike ride through Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

Other stops on Biden’s trip, including the first-ever presidential visit to Papua New Guinea and another leaders’ summit in Australia, also remained in question. Returning to the US directly from Japan and skipping those countries remained a possibility.

But that, too, could prevent Biden from engaging key leaders as he works to deepen cooperation in the region. The White House has billed his stop in Papua New Guinea – where he will meet leaders from the Pacific Island Forum – as a key opportunity to develop strategic ties with nations China is also heavily courting.

And the Quad leaders summit in Sydney marks an important moment for Biden to boost relations with Australia, India and Japan as he works to create a counterbalance to China.

Biden isn’t the first US president to face a choice between traveling abroad and staying behind to tend to fiscal talks. Budget disagreements and a government shutdown prevented then-President Barack Obama from visiting Indonesia and Brunei in 2013. Then-President Bill Clinton skipped a meeting in Japan amid an earlier debt ceiling dispute in 1995.

Both times, pains were taken to avoid the appearance of a snub. Clinton placed a personal phone call to Japan’s prime minister to inform him of his decision.

But the cancellations raised questions nonetheless. Japan’s leading financial newspaper, the Nikkei Shimbun, said the cancellation demonstrated the “inevitable diminishing of America’s leadership role.”