But political experts also see potential risks
The massive gathering of world and corporate leaders in San Francisco this week for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting provides a welcome boost — but also some risk — for Democratic Party leaders ranging from President Joe Biden to Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed.
In recent polls, all three have seen their popularity dwindle due to mixed economic signals, problems abroad, and domestic woes ranging from crime to homelessness, while the host city’s spectacular vistas, cable cars, and sourdough have been overshadowed by news reports of rampant retail thefts, car break-ins, and homelessness.
The APEC CEO Summit, which is expected to be the largest gathering of world leaders in the city since the United Nations was founded there in 1945, provides an opportunity to reset that narrative.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Sonoma State University political science professor David McCuan said. “It’s a bit of a forward-looking, turning of the page.”
Biden will be joined by the leaders of China, Canada, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Peru, Chile, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as dozens of high-profile CEOs such as Tesla’s Elon Musk, Pfizer’s Albert Bourla, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi.
The goal is to foster high-level dialogues across the pan-Pacific economies about sustainability, inclusion, resilience, and innovation. Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first in a year, is especially noteworthy, as they will discuss thorny issues such as trade, Taiwan, North Korea, and Iran.
However, whenever the president visits the Bay Area, large sums of money are raised. The event coincides with a dinner for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in San Francisco on Tuesday hosted by real estate magnate and political consultant Clint Reilly. The prices of the tickets range from $250,000 to $1,000. Newsom appears as a special guest.
For Biden, who has been chastised for everything from his advanced age to inflation, illegal immigration, the economy, and his handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict and China, it’s a chance to demonstrate that he’s engaged with world leaders and driving his agenda on a key issue ahead of his reelection bid next year.
“This is less about responding to crises and more about an active rather than reactive US foreign policy,” said Jason McDaniel, associate professor of politics at San Francisco State University. “That’s something President Biden will want to show.”
McCuan added that the setting contains significant symbolism.
“This is the place where the UN was established to decide what a post-World War II world would look like,” said McCuan. “It’s a place where these individuals can point to new era cooperation amid competition.”
According to a November 8 Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, 52% of voters in California, the Democrats’ big blue whale on the electoral map, disapprove of Biden’s performance, while 44% approve. Majorities oppose Biden’s handling of immigration, inflation, crime, and the Israel-Hamas conflict, and more oppose than support his handling of China.
According to poll director Mark DiCamillo, while this does not mean Biden will lose the Golden State to a Republican, it does reflect similar findings in other national polls that could spell trouble for his reelection bid.
“His job ratings are underwater,” said DiCamillo. “That’s the first time we’ve seen more people disapproving than approving of him.”
Harris, a former San Francisco District Attorney and former California Attorney General and U.S. Senator, has also received poor polling results. Because she isn’t listed among APEC’s official attendees, it’s unclear what role she might play this week back in the Bay Area aside from fundraising.
For Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor who easily defeated a recall attempt and has since been raising his national profile in preparation for a presumed future presidential bid, the summit is also an opportunity to reverse a recent drop in polls.
According to a November 7 Berkeley IGS poll, more Californians now disapprove of his job performance than approve, 49% to 44%, with discontent particularly among political moderates and independent voters, the state’s two major swing voter blocs. Those voters expressed dissatisfaction with Newsom’s recent more active role in national Democratic politics, such as sparring with red-state governors, rather than addressing state issues. And, while half of voters supported his recent trip to China to promote climate change initiatives, 39% opposed it.
“Voters want their governor to do the job they’ve elected him to do,” he said.
The APEC summit provides an opportunity for Newsom to demonstrate to critics that he is more than “this pretty face and not a lot of substance,” as McDaniel put it.
“I think for Newsom’s future political ambitions, this looks like a positive event for him,” McDaniel said in a statement. “It’s something he will point to as something positive showing some substance on the world stage.”
Breed, whom many Democrats regard as a rising star in their party, has also been buffeted in polls as residents express their dissatisfaction with quality-of-life issues and images of smash-and-grab thefts, store closures, and homeless drug addict encampments lining city streets.
A September poll by a group called GrowSF, which has criticized the city’s treatment of the homeless, found that 68% of residents believe the city is on the wrong track, and 60% dislike Breed, far more than reelection rivals Daniel Lurie (11%), a Levi Strauss heir, and county Supervisor Ahsha Safai (23%).
Breed’s office has been stepping up homeless encampment clearances in preparation for the APEC meeting, hoping to avoid a repeat of Super Bowl 50 TV coverage in 2016, which featured homeless encampments and gave the city a bad name.
McDaniel stated that the conference enabled Breed to rally support for addressing those issues.
“She’s a vulnerable incumbent, and it’s a chance to reset some of those narratives going into the campaign,” McDaniel said in an interview. “She wants to be able to tell that story of progress being made.”
However, political experts say that the event poses political risks to all three. Protests are being planned by a number of organizations. Climate activists are protesting a gathering that will also include ExxonMobil CEOs, major bank and credit company CEOs, and critics of the Biden administration’s policies in the Middle East, Cuba, and the Philippines.
It’s difficult to predict how large and rowdy those protests will be, given the forecasted heavy rain. Any ugly clashes between protesters and police, on the other hand, pose a political risk for the mayor, governor, and president. Protests would highlight Democratic divisions over China, Israel, and economic policy, reflecting on Breed and Newsom as he introduces himself to the nation’s voters.
Foreign dignitaries and visitors who have their cars broken into or come across homeless encampments or public drug markets pose a risk as well.
“That can feed back into the narratives we’ve seen as predominant about San Francisco,” McDaniel went on to say.
There is an additional challenge for Newsom: he must walk a fine line between presenting himself as a credible national leader and upstaging the president and vice president.
“You have to demonstrate you have some substance,” he stated, “and still you don’t want to step on the toes of the president of the United States.”