Shaken by Afghan fallout, Biden nervously eyes polls
In the week after the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul to complete their takeover of Afghanistan, the White House was busy doing damage control. President Biden received a daily briefing on the situation on the ground, with updates on the evacuation of US citizens and Afghani translators and guides who worked with American forces for 20 years.
Dozens of flights set out each day, carrying thousands of evacuees — although in the chaos at the airport, several planes left with only a handful of passengers. As of this writing, America has extricated 17,000 people from Afghanistan, with other Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait accepting refugees. On Sunday the Pentagon ordered commercial airliners to join the effort, which is hoped will bring the number of evacuees to tens of thousands.
And if a week ago the order was to pull forces out pell-mell, this week the administration is singing a different tune. Now Biden is saying that American troops will stay in Afghanistan well into next month, even past his original stated deadline of September 11, the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Suddenly, US military personnel are expanding their hold on the Kabul airport, in a last-ditch attempt to get out as many people as possible. But all this is seen as too little, too late.
The shocking images of mothers handing their babies over the barbed-wire fence to Western soldiers, the rescue of Afghani government officials as their families are left behind, and the Taliban’s brutal reprisals against anyone who cooperated — all speak directly to Biden’s failure of leadership.
Few Americans want to stay in Afghanistan, but people are asking why it had to end this way, with a chaotic and disorganized withdrawal just to meet a symbolic deadline. Furthermore, recent reports indicate that Secretary of State Tony Blinken was advised back in July that the Taliban’s advance was accelerating and he should start packing up the embassy right away. Even when the withdrawal got underway in earnest, senseless bureaucratic delays tied up the evacuation of Afghani workers.
For the first time since Biden took his place in the Oval Office, the American public has started to give him a negative rating. Just 47 percent expressed approval of his performance in a recent poll, compared to 48 percent who disapproved. How will last week’s events affect Biden in the long run?
“Many presidents have experienced failures in their first year in office,” says Tevi Troy, an aide in the Bush White House, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and author of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump. “Herbert Hoover suffered through the great crash of 1929, and neither his presidency nor his reputation ever got over it. John F. Kennedy had the failure at the Bay of Pigs, but he retooled and created a new national security process that served him much better during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“The question for Biden is whether he can cope with this significant setback and find a way to do better in the future. The American people — and the civilized world — are hoping that will be the case.”
Although in general the American public prioritizes domestic issues above foreign policy, Troy believes the damage to Biden’s reputation from the Afghanistan debacle could hurt his chances in 2024.
“While the American public is typically more focused on domestic issues than on foreign affairs, they also don’t like defeat, and they don’t like ineffectuality, both of which have been on display in the Afghanistan situation,” Troy tells Mishpacha. “It’s unsurprising that his approval numbers have dropped below 50 percent as a result, as this failure will both hurt him in 2024 — should he choose to run — and in terms of his historical reputation.”
Mark Mellman, president and CEO of Democratic Majority for Israel, is hopeful Biden can move past this. “Americans generally pay less attention to foreign policy, and presidents have lots of important opportunities to convey who they are and what they can do. The presidents themselves have more control over some of those opportunities and less control over others. This is one where the president has less control.
“On this issue, most Americans still agree with the policy, though they are unhappy about the execution. President Biden will have lots of other opportunities to execute well.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, predicts that Afghanistan will be an indelible stain on the Biden administration. “The American people will not soon forget images like the Taliban recreating the famous scene at Iwo Jima — wearing abandoned American military gear — or innocent Afghanis plummeting to their deaths from departing cargo planes.
“Most importantly, American people can’t forgive abandoning fellow Americans and our allies,” Brooks argues. “Politically, Biden and Congressional Democrats have certainly lost their argument that they are the ‘adults in the room.’ That’s what we are seeing in polling over the last week. His approval is in a free fall. Biden seemed to be coated in Teflon the first seven months of his presidency. Now Americans are taking a more critical look. That’s the lasting political fallout for Biden — all of a sudden voters have a hard time believing he has inflation, spending, and the southern border under control, because he certainly doesn’t have foreign policy under control.”
Biden won’t be up for reelection for over three years, which would seem to be plenty of time for him to recover from this blow — assuming he even runs. But history shows that such events have a way of etching themselves permanently into the public consciousness. The Benghazi fiasco, for example, haunted Hilary Clinton all the way to 2016, and Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic definitely influenced his chances.
Until now Biden has enjoyed a honeymoon, getting lots of help from his own party and even garnering some Republican support on his signature reforms.
That has changed. Now even Senate and House Democrats are demanding answers about the way the withdrawal was executed. Biden’s actions until the pullout is completed — and that may be further off than expected — will be a strong factor in determining whether he can recover from last week’s disaster.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 875)
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