Originally Published: 27 DEC 23 12:05 ET
By Kevin Liptak and Nikki Carvajal, CNN
St. Croix, US Virgin Islands (CNN) — When President Joe Biden arrives in St. Croix on Wednesday with his wife, it will be one of the couple’s final opportunities for sunny relaxation before the heat of next year’s presidential campaign begins in earnest.
It’s a familiar venue: the Bidens have vacationed in the Virgin Islands stretching back more than a dozen years, building a routine of beach days and golf outings amid the bougainvillea hedges and palm trees.
It was to St. Croix that Biden escaped with his wife last year before making a final decision about running for reelection, and where he retreated in 2019 as he prepared for his first challenge to Donald Trump.
This year, Biden will again be preparing for an election — his final one after more than 50 years in public life — as he soaks in the island’s 80-degree days and light tradewinds.
The week-long getaway in the Virgin Islands will cap a year that brought significant challenges for the president, including two overseas wars, sagging approval ratings and Democratic jitters about his weakened political standing heading into 2024.
He arrives the same day his top diplomat and other senior officials are in Mexico looking for diplomatic solutions to the surge of migrants at the US southern border, an issue that appears destined to play a central role in next year’s election.
And lawmakers continue to haggle over Biden’s funding requests for Ukraine, Israel and the border, drawing the White House’s ire for leaving Washington for the holidays without approving the new aid.
Despite the challenges, there never appeared to be much of a question that Biden would close out 2023 in the tropics, as has been his tradition for years.
Presidential getaways have long been a balancing act between family time and crisis management. The presidential apparatus of aides, communication equipment and security accompanies Biden wherever he goes, including the Caribbean.
Already, Biden’s holidays have been interrupted by fears of an expanding conflict in the Middle East. He was briefed on Christmas morning at Camp David about attacks on a US base in Iraq, and later ordered retaliatory strikes on the Iranian proxy group responsible.
On Wednesday, Biden was joined on Air Force One by his national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who has been central in the American response to the war between Israel and Hamas. Sullivan traveled to Israel earlier this month for talks with senior officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about transitioning to a lower intensity phase of fighting in Gaza.
Sullivan also accompanied Biden to St. Croix last year, as the war in Ukraine was entering its 10th month.
Signs of the presidential entourage were visible in St. Croix in the run-up to Biden’s arrival: the jumbo C-17 transport planes sitting among the puddle jumpers at the airport; temporary security checkpoints among the flowers along the quiet coastal road; unusually high numbers of visitors from Washington.
In years past, Biden has mostly retreated from public view in St. Croix, spending time at a secluded home owned by Bill and Connie Neville, whom the White House has described as Biden’s friends. They are also Democratic donors.
In 2022, Biden was joined only by the first lady and two of his grandchildren, Hunter and Natalie, who are the children of the president’s late son Beau.
During their visits in the years after Biden served as vice president, when his security apparatus dwindled and normalcy found a return to their daily routine, the first couple could be spotted around the island on occasion with virtually no entourage, driving themselves along the flower-lined roads in a rental Toyota sedan.
Biden has emerged to play rounds of golf at the Buccaneer Resort, a par-70 course described as “challenging, yet very playable” on the property’s website.
And he’s dined out occasionally, including last year at one of the island’s top restaurants.
Emerging afterward with two of his grandchildren, reporters asked about his plans for 2024.
“There’s an election coming up?” he asked jokingly, before predicting: “2023 is going to be a good year.”
Biden’s loyalty to St. Croix, a US territory, has been the most high-profile of any American politician in recent history. Before Biden’s visit in 2022, a sitting American president had not visited St. Croix since Harry S. Truman arrived by yacht, the USS Williamsburg, in 1948.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton visited neighboring St. Thomas, another of the US Virgin Islands, for his winter vacation, chartering a catamaran with his family and snorkeling with daughter Chelsea.
One thing Biden won’t find in St. Croix: votes for reelection. Residents of the organized, unincorporated territory cannot vote in US presidential elections.
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