Biden arrived in Los Angeles hoping to use new economic and migration announcements to demonstrate cohesion in a region of fractured politics and, at times, entrenched skepticism of the United States.
And by the time the summit was over, 20 leaders had signed on to an agreement that offers a road map for handling the region’s large migration flows, perhaps the most significant accomplishment of a gathering whose relevance many had questioned ahead of time.
Yet the decision of several leaders to boycott the summit, including the top officials from Mexico and three Central American countries the US has worked hard to cultivate, remained a visible sticking point. They refused to attend because Biden declined to extend invitations to the autocratic leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
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Heading into the summit, White House officials were frustrated that the drama over the participants appeared to be obscuring the important issues at stake. Yet when it came time for the leaders to gather inside the Los Angeles Convention Center, the discord was plain.
And on Friday evening, first lady Jill Biden complained that the news coverage of her husband had been “so unfair.”
“Every leader came up to Joe and said what a difference you’ve made and say how we can work together,” she told Democratic donors in a backyard in Brentwood.
As Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris watched from mere feet away, Belize’s Prime Minister called it “inexcusable” that all the countries of the Americas had not been invited. He said the power of the summit was “diminished” by their absence.
Argentine President Alberto Fernández said during a speech later in the program that the rules of future summits should be changed to prevent nations from being excluded. “We definitely would have wished for a different Summit of the Americas. The silence of those who were absent is calling to us,” he added.
The remarks did not come as a surprise to US officials, who were aware of the disagreements beforehand and anticipated that some leaders would air them publicly. Before the summit, some Biden aides suggested there would be a certain amount of political posturing among leaders who have domestic audiences that are often skeptical of the United States.
And as he left the stage, Fernández and Biden shared a friendly handshake, a sign that behind the scenes things were not as tense as they appeared.
“Notwithstanding the disagreements, think back to what we heard today,” Biden said after sitting through his counterparts’ speeches. “We heard almost total agreement on the substantive things that we should be doing.”
In the land of $7-per-gallon gasoline, Biden was never far from his biggest political liability. And while foreign policy can sometimes act as an escape hatch for politically imperiled presidents, a weakened US leader is not helped by boycotts and public shaming from his global counterparts.
Many of the problems Biden hoped to address at his summit are potent political problems as well, including large flows of migrants on the southern border and inflation made worse by unreliable supply chains.
During a pause from his summit hosting duties, Biden made a detour to the Port of Los Angeles to address what his team views as the most pressing current issue: high prices for everything from gas to groceries.