Once again Joe Biden found himself talking about nation-building, the fragility of democracy and the threat that religious extremists pose to women’s rights.
But the president’s interventions on Thursday were focused on America, not Afghanistan, as domestic events gave him an unexpected assist in his effort to turn the page on the ignominious retreat from Kabul.
Historic flooding in the north-east gave Biden a cue to remind Americans of his plan to spend $1tn on better infrastructure. Texas’s enforcement of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country drew a stinging rebuke from the president. Battles over voting rights and a full accounting of the 6 January insurrection raged on.
All of them gave the White House an opportunity to talk about something other than Afghanistan. August has been dubbed Biden’s “month from hell” after his decision to withdraw US forces saw the Afghan government and army capitulate to the Taliban far faster than he had predicted. The US then frantically evacuated more than 120,000 people but 13 troops died in a terrorist attack.
The president’s reputation as a safe pair hands, and a safe harbour for western allies, was shaken to its core. While his Democratic allies now hope that the issue will fade from public consciousness, allowing to him renew focus on the pandemic and a sweeping economic agenda, Republicans are determined that Biden should not be simply allowed to move on.
“He desperately would like to change the subject, talk about domestic matters or Covid or areas where he feels like he has a little bit more control and ability to get engaged,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “I’m not of the view that it’s going to be easy for him to do that.
“People will continue to discuss what is happening in Afghanistan. I’m sure Republicans will ensure that his handling of the crisis in Afghanistan remains a campaign issue. Some of this is going to be well beyond his control; if circumstances in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, re-enter the public mind and re-enter public attention, he’s going to have to respond to that, and there’s not going to be a whole lot he can do to avoid that or to change the subject, even if he wants to.”
Biden had been riding high in July, when mass vaccinations blunted the coronavirus, and early August, when he claimed a bipartisan infrastructure deal as vindication of his faith in bipartisanship. But the chaotic scenes from Afghanistan, including desperate people clinging to a US military plane – and a 17-year-old footballer plunging from one to his death – rewrote the narrative.
Biden’s character and competence were scrutinized and his approval rating dipped below 50%. But he remained firm in his conviction and defiant of his many critics, including in the powerful Washington foreign policy establishment. After the final troops flew out, ending the conflict of 20 years, he attempted to draw a line in the sand on 31 August, insisting: “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
A day later, as calendars flicked to September, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, began her regular briefing by discussing the impact of Hurricane Ida on Louisiana and Mississippi. The first question from reporters concerned the pandemic; the second was about a new law in Texas that undermines women’s reproductive rights.
The grand pivot away from Afghanistan had begun. Psaki said: “The president knows that he has responsibilities, and the multiple crises he will continue to have to face as president are part of his job description. And if there is a meeting warranted in the situation room with his military leaders, national security team, about Afghanistan or any other issue, of course he’s going to be there for that.
”But he also knows that part of his commitment to the American people is getting the pandemic under control, is addressing the hurricane and making sure that people in Louisiana and Mississippi and other states on the Gulf coast know he’s doing absolutely everything in his power to make sure they have power.”
Then remnants of the hurricane unleashed record floods in New York and New Jersey, delivering images guaranteed to knock Afghanistan off cable news. Local Democrats leaders warned that such events will become more frequent and ferocious and urged Congress to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. It was a subject that the president was more than happy to talk about.
He said: “The past few days of Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the west and the unprecedented flash floods in New York and New Jersey is yet another reminder that these extreme storms and the climate crisis are here. We need to do be much better prepared. We need to act. When Congress returns this month, I’m going to press for their action on my Build Back Better plan.”
The infrastructure bill would modernize roads, bridges, water systems, sewer and draining systems, electric grids and transmission lines, making them more resilient to superstorms and wildfires, as well as making huge investments to combat the climate crisis. Signing it into law would give Biden a major political victory to get his presidency back on track.
But this scenario is far from certain. The House of Representatives and Senate are haggling over both this bill and a $3.5tn budget reconciliation package that invests in childcare and other social priorities. Democratic leaders want to pass them together but party moderates are reluctant. On Thursday Senator Joe Manchin said Democrats should “hit the pause button” on the $3.5tn package.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said: “I’ll be very curious what the pivot’s going to be for Biden. He needs a win on something. He needs something a little more dramatic than an infrastructure bill. He needs an act of God. He needs a supreme court justice to drop dead.”
In the meantime, Republicans have no intention of allowing Afghanistan to drop off the radar. That Republican George W Bush started the war, or that Republican Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to end it, has not prevented them portraying Biden as a man out of his depth who left behind more than a hundred US citizens, thousands of Afghan allies and abundant military hardware.
John Bolton, a former national security adviser under Trump and an opponent of withdrawal, believes the episode will be “damaging” to the president and could undermine his agenda. “If you look at this withdrawal as the debacle it’s very widely viewed as, that’s Biden’s mistake and that’s going to hurt him,” he said.
“Democrats in Congress are very worried that the perception of incompetence will spill over into domestic affairs and the fate of the $3.5tn package and any number of other things could be jeopardized. The swing-district Democrats in the House and some in the Senate are saying this is one more piece of evidence that we’re going to be in real trouble next year if we just blindly follow the White House leadership on this.
“So there’s real trouble ahead for them. It’s hard to measure exactly but I do think in American politics, when you lose the perception of competence, it’s very hard to get it back.”
A blitz of attack ads suggest that Republicans believe they have finally found Biden’s Achilles’ heel. Michael Steel, who was a spokesperson for former House speaker John Boehner, said: “I’m sure the White House hopes that legislative successes this fall will allow them to ‘right the ship’, but nothing will erase the searing images from Kabul over the past weeks, or the damage done to America’s credibility.”
Some Democrats have also expressed frustration at the botched withdrawal, and three Democratic-led Senate committees have pledged to investigate “failures”, a rare rebuke for the president from his own party. Biden will also have to contend with the resettlement of thousands of Afghan refugees, a potentially incendiary issue.
But White House strategists may be betting that taking a hit in the short term is worth the long-term vindication of ending an unpopular war, given that the average citizen is currently more concerned with Covid-19 outbreaks in schools. And to adapt an oft-quoted Afghan saying, Republicans have the watches but Biden has the time: the midterm elections will not be held until November 2022.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “Afghanistan will matter for Republicans; they’re never going to give up. The dog has chomped out on the ankle. But for Democrats, no, they’re going to laugh at that and say, ‘Oh, you want to go back? 20 years wasn’t enough? $2tn wasn’t enough? 2,400 American lives wasn’t enough?’ Who wins that argument? It’s obvious the Democrats do.”
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