As wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, migrants stream illegally into the United States in record numbers and an intense 2024 campaign season looms, President Biden is lying low.
Here on tropical St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Mr. Biden; the first lady, Jill Biden; and their granddaughter Natalie are spending New Year’s week in a secluded oceanfront villa overlooking the turquoise Caribbean, the president is staying mostly out of the spotlight.
On Saturday, Mr. Biden made his first public appearance, venturing out to attend mass at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Christiansted, the largest town in St. Croix. He and Dr. Biden later taped an interview with Ryan Seacrest, due to air on New Year’s Eve as part of ABC’s “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.” In the evening, the president and first lady dined at Too Chez, one of the island’s top restaurants, and he afterward revealed his New Year’s resolution.
“To come back next year,” Mr. Biden said.
Republicans have roundly criticized Mr. Biden’s island getaway, which began just a day after he returned to the White House from spending Christmas with family at Camp David.
Several lawmakers accused the president of failing to address the migrant surge along the southern U.S. border by taking time away. And on Thursday, when the White House announced in the morning that there would be no public events for Mr. Biden that day as temperatures hovered in the 80s on St. Croix, an arm of the Republican National Committee pounced.
“Illegal immigrants are pouring across the open southern border by the tens of thousands every day,” the group RNC Research wrote on the social media site X, adding that Mr. Biden, “on his second vacation in a week — called it a day before noon.”
Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said that presidential vacations are virtually always denounced by the opposing party.
But even a commander in chief needs to unwind sometimes, Mr. Zelizer noted, and, in this day and age, no president is ever truly unplugged.
“It’s not as if the president takes a vacation like many of us and just sits around on the beach or something,” he said. “They go with their full presidential apparatus and they’re surrounded by their advisers.”
A White House official described Mr. Biden’s trip as a working vacation. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, accompanied the president to St. Croix and has briefed him multiple times since arriving, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s schedule.
On Friday, Mr. Biden condemned Russia for launching what he called the largest aerial assault on Ukraine since the start of the war, and he issued a statement warning that President Vladimir V. Putin “must be stopped.” Asked Saturday if he planned to speak with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine after Russia’s latest attacks, Mr. Biden replied, “I speak to him regularly.”
He also called on Congress on Friday to approve national security funding for Ukraine and Israel, which has been tied to negotiations over border and immigration policies, and White House officials said the president was closely monitoring those talks, too.
Many St. Croix residents said that, even though Mr. Biden was staying largely out of the public eye this year, they appreciated that his visits have helped highlight the history of the island, which was once home to the founding father Alexander Hamilton. They described it as a quirky, warmhearted island where stray cats are well fed at five-star resorts. In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” St. Croix features only as the “forgotten spot in the Caribbean,” from which a young Hamilton pulled himself out of poverty.
Mr. Biden’s visit is his second to St. Croix as president, but the Bidens have traveled there more than a dozen times over the years.
“He loves St. Croix, and we really love having him here,” said Leonore Gillette, a retired schoolteacher who has lived on the island for 45 years.
“We certainly appreciate the infusion of activity,” said Nadine Bougouneau, another longtime resident who works at The Buccaneer, a resort that was filled to capacity with Secret Service agents and members of the media traveling with Mr. Biden. The president played on the 18-hole golf course at the resort last year with his grandson Hunter.
Several people, including the governor of the Virgin Islands, fondly recalled Mr. Biden’s visits before he was president — and the Secret Service was not blocking miles of roads for security. Back then, locals and tourists said they would run into him biking, jogging or picking up coffee at Ziggy’s, an island market and gas station on the east end.
“We feel like he’s a Virgin Islander,” Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said.
“Before he was president, I would be downtown at night and see him in a restaurant, and I’d be sitting with people and say, ‘That’s Joe Biden.’ And people would say, ‘No way,’” he recalled.
These days, the governor said, Mr. Biden’s visit gave him a chance to highlight some of the issues facing the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is heavily dependent on tourism and still working to recover from the hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Mr. Bryan called the islands’ most serious challenge a requirement to match 10 percent of $15 billion in federal hurricane reconstruction aid. He said the money, and the ability of the Virgin Islands to repair its water systems and other major projects, could be jeopardized because the government cannot afford the approximately $1.5 billion match. The Virgin Islands, home to about 87,000 people, has an annual budget of $1.2 billion.
Still, Mr. Bryan said, he does not view Mr. Biden’s New Year’s visit as the best time to make his case to the president.
“To be honest, I preferred it when he wasn’t president because he spent more time with me,” he joked, adding that this year, “I really try to stay away from him so he can get a chance to rest, because he’s going to need it to go into this election.”
Mr. Biden is entering 2024 with a persistently low job approval rating of 39 percent, according to December polling from Gallup, the worst of any modern-day president seeking re-election. Mr. Zelizer said that makes the policy challenges Mr. Biden faces in the Middle East and Ukraine — and with Congress — all the more difficult.
“All of this is going to be waiting for him when he comes back to Washington, and he knows it,” Mr. Zelizer said. He added, “It’s going to be a tough year.”