Once again this past Thursday, Joe Biden found himself talking about nation-building, the fragility of democracy, and the threat religious extremists pose to women’s rights. But the president’s remarks focused on the United States, not Afghanistan, as events at home offered him an unexpected opportunity in his attempt to turn the page on the shameful withdrawal from Kabul.
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Historic flooding in the Northeast gave Biden a chance to remind Americans of his plan to spend a trillion dollars to improve infrastructure. The imposition of the most extreme restrictions on abortion in the country in Texas drew a harsh rebuke from the president. The battles over voting rights and accountability for the January 6 insurrection did not cease. ‘
All of this has given the White House an opportunity to speak about something other than Afghanistan. August has been baptized as a “infernal month” for Joe Biden after his decision to withdraw US forces led to the capitulation of the Afghan Government and Army to the Taliban much faster than anticipated. More than 120,000 people have been frantically evacuated, but 13 soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack.
“It will not be easy”
The president’s reputation as a competent man and a safe haven for Western allies has been deeply shaken. As his Democratic allies hope the issue will fade from the collective consciousness to allow him to refocus on the pandemic and the broader economic agenda, Republicans are determined not to allow Let Biden just turn the page.
“He desperately wants to change the subject, talk about national issues or COVID-19 or areas where he feels he has a little more control and the ability to get involved,” he says. Lanhee Chen, member of the think tank Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “I’m not of the opinion that it’s going to be easy for him to do it.”
“People are going to keep talking about what’s going on in Afghanistan. I’m sure Republicans will make sure their handling of the crisis in Afghanistan remains a campaign issue. Some of this is going to get out of their control; yes the circumstances in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, return to public opinion and regain attention, he will have to respond, and there will not be much he can do to avoid it or change the subject, even if he wanted to, “he says.
Biden was on a roll in July, when vaccinations eased the coronavirus, and in early August, when he vindicated the bipartisan agreement on his infrastructure plan as a sign of his faith in bipartisanship. But the chaotic scenes in Afghanistan, including those of desperate people clinging to American military planes – and the 17-year-old soccer player who rushed from one to death – they rewrote the story.
Biden’s character and competition came under scrutiny and his approval rating fell below 50%. But he stood firm in his convictions and defied his many critics, including to the mighty establishment of foreign policy in Washington. Following the departure of the last troops, which ended a 20-year conflict, he tried to set a boundary on August 31, insisting: “I was not going to prolong this war forever, and I was not going to prolong a departure forever.”
New month, new agenda
A day later, with the calendar change to September, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki began her press conference talking about the impact of Hurricane Ida on Louisiana and Mississippi. The journalists’ first question was about the pandemic; the second, to the new law that undermines the reproductive rights of women in Texas.
The great turn away from Afghanistan had begun. “The president knows that he has responsibilities, and that facing as president the multiple crises that he will have to continue to face is part of his job description,” he said. Psaki. “And if it is necessary to meet in the White House Situation Room with the military leaders, the national security team, about Afghanistan or any other topic, of course he will be there.”
“But you also know that part of your commitment to the American people is to control the pandemic, is to respond to the hurricane and make sure the people of Louisiana and Mississippi and other states along the Gulf of Mexico know that you are doing absolutely everything that you do. it is in their power to ensure that they have electricity, “said the spokeswoman.
The consequences of the hurricane unleashed historic floods in New York and New Jersey, with images guaranteeing the departure of Afghanistan from the news. Local Democratic leaders warned that these events will become more frequent and fiercer and urged Congress to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. A topic the president was more than happy to talk about.
“The past few days, with Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the West and flash floods in New York and New Jersey are further reminders that these extreme storms and the climate crisis are here,” said. “We have to be much better prepared. We must act. When Congress returns this month, I will push for them to move forward with my plan. Build Back Better (‘rebuild better’) “.
The infrastructure bill would modernize roads, bridges, water networks, sewerage and drainage systems, power grids and power lines, strengthening them against super storms and forest fires, along with huge investments to combat the climate crisis. . Passing it into law would grant Biden a major political victory to get his presidency back on track.
But this scenario is far from assured. The House of Representatives and the Senate are negotiating this bill and a $ 3.5 trillion package to invest in childcare and other social priorities. Democratic leaders want to pass them together, but the party’s more moderates are reluctant. On Thursday, Senator Joe Manchin said Democrats should “press the pause button“on the $ 3.5 trillion package.
“I’m very curious about what the lynchpin will be for Biden,” says Bill Whalen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “You need to win at something. You need something a little more spectacular than an infrastructure project. You need divine intervention. You need a member of the Supreme Court to die suddenly.”
Republicans won’t make it easy for them
Meanwhile, Republicans they have no intention to allow Afghanistan to disappear from the radar. That the Republican George W. Bush started the war, or that the Republican Donald Trump signed the agreement with the Taliban to end it, has not prevented them from portraying Biden as an overwhelmed man, who abandoned more than a hundred American citizens, thousands of Afghan allies and abundant military equipment.
John Bolton, who was a national security adviser to Trump and opposed the withdrawal, believes that this episode will be more “damaging” for the president and could weaken his program. “If you share the widely accepted view that the withdrawal is a debacle, it is Biden’s mistake and that is going to hurt him.”
“Democrats in Congress are very concerned that the perception of incompetence will spill over into national affairs and that it will jeopardize the fate of the 3.5 trillion package and one of anything else,” he says. “Democrats from contested districts in the House and some others in the Senate say this is further proof that next year they are going to be in real trouble if we blindly follow the White House on this.”
“So real problems await him. It will be difficult to measure exactly, but I think that in American politics, it is very difficult to regain the perception of competition when you lose it,” he says.
A display of attacks suggests that Republicans believe they have finally found Biden’s Achilles heel. “I am sure the White House hopes that this fall’s legislative successes will allow it to ‘correct course,’ but nothing will erase the heartbreaking images of Kabul in recent weeks, and the damage they have done to America’s credibility.” , He says Michael Steel, who was a spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner.
Some Democrats have also expressed frustration over the botched pullout, and three Democratic-led committees in the Senate have promised to investigate the “failures”, a rare reprimand from the party itself to the president. Biden will also have to deal with the resettlement of thousands of Afghan refugees, a potentially explosive issue.
But White House strategists may be betting that the short-term blow will be offset by vindication. to have ended an unpopular war long-term, as citizens are now more concerned about COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. And to paraphrase a well-known Afghan saying, Republicans have the clocks, but Biden has the time: Midterm elections won’t be held until November 2022.
“Afghanistan will be important to Republicans; they will never give up,” he says. Larry Sabato, director of the Policy Center at the University of Virginia. “The dog has bitten the heel. But for the Democrats, no, they will laugh and say, ‘Do you want to go back? 20 years was not enough? Two trillion dollars was not enough? 2,400 American lives weren’t enough? ‘ Who wins that debate? Obviously the Democrats. ”
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies.