(Bloomberg) — As Joe Biden criss-crosses the country raising money ahead of November’s elections, his unscripted appearances with Democratic donors have opened a window into the president’s occasionally unflattering views on foreign countries.
Nations with right-wing leaders or troubled relationships with the US are increasingly popping up as examples when the president, in remarks at fundraisers, alights on one of his favorite topics: threats to democracy and the rise of autocracies.
At the Los Angeles home of famed television producer Marcy Carsey on Thursday night, his target was Pakistan. “Maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world,” Biden said.
“Nuclear weapons without any cohesion,” he added, addressing a crowd that included television scientist Bill Nye and fashion designer Tom Ford.
Even US allies are fair game. A week earlier, speaking with a small group of wealthy New Jersey-ites including musician Jon Bon Jovi, he turned his attention to NATO member Hungary.
“You see the debates going on around the world now, in terms of what constitutes democracy,” Biden said. “You see what’s happening in Hungary. A — you know, it happens to be a NATO member. I could go on and bore the hell out of you.”
Biden’s criticisms are usually intended to bolster the central argument of his midterm stump speech — that the stakes are high, the world is unstable, and a Republican takeover of Congress would, in his estimation, contribute to the global erosion of democratic ideals.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, seen as the closest leader in the EU to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has become a darling of some US conservatives for his nationalist politics.
The president made his biggest splash on Oct. 6, when in the Upper East Side home of James Murdoch, son of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, he delivered a dire warning about Putin and the gravity of his nuclear posturing.
“He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, significantly under-performing,” Biden said, adding that the US “faced the prospect of Armageddon.”
When he’s in front of donors, Biden generally speaks without a teleprompter and the remarks aren’t televised. The speeches offer a glimpse into the president’s psyche, showing how foreign policy developments and personal slights weigh on his thinking.
During a September fundraiser benefiting the Democratic Governors’ Association, Biden went after G-7 member Italy just after the country elected a right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.
“You just saw what’s happened in Italy in that election,” Biden said. “You’re seeing what’s happening around the world. And the reason I bother to say that is we can’t be sanguine about what’s happening here, either,” he added.
Biden has chafed over Hungary’s effort to block the European Union from participating in his global summit for democracy. And Biden has long viewed Pakistan’s commitment to counter-terrorism efforts warily — a sentiment that likely deepened after the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan dealt his administration one of its greatest embarrassments.
The president also likes to tell donors personal stories that, as the New York Times and Washington Post have reported, are often exaggerated.
The risk for the White House is that Biden’s moments of fundraiser candor could create geopolitical headaches down the road.
Keeping Italy’s support is crucial as the US and other leading democracies look to bolster Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russia’s invasion — particularly with the approaching winter and higher energy costs threatening to raise the cost for European nations.
White House Cleanup
Following Biden’s remarks on Italy, the White House appeared to recognize that Rome might not appreciate the president’s criticism of the results of a free election.
“The United States stands ready and eager to work with the new government that emerges from the electoral process and to continue to work together as allies to advance our many shared goals and mutual interests,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre subsequently told reporters, adding that the US respected “the democratic choice of the Italian people.”
A senior administration official quickly told reporters that no new assessment drove the president’s comments, and that the US had not seen any indication Putin had made a decision to use nuclear weapons. Jean-Pierre was pressed the next day on why Biden would raise alarm about the potential for nuclear war to a group of wealthy donors, rather than in a public forum.
“He was reinforcing what we have been saying,” she replied.
There are more opportunities for the president to offer unsolicited international critiques before Election Day. Biden travels to Oregon on Friday, where he’s expected to hold a pair of events benefiting Democrats. And on Thursday, he’ll speak at a fundraising event for John Fetterman , the Democratic candidate in a pivotal Pennsylvania Senate race.