Biden grapples with twin crises

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President Biden is grappling with an international crisis involving the fall of the Afghan government and a domestic one in the COVID-19 pandemic, testing the resolve and ability of his young presidency.

The double crisis has caused some heartburn for Democrats, who have until now, felt as though Biden’s presidency has been a resounding success.

Facing a barrage of negative headlines and criticism from members of his own party, Biden is now under growing pressure to evacuate Americans and Afghans who assisted U.S. forces from a chaotic Afghanistan while also keeping his eye trained on his chief priority — stifling a sharp rise in coronavirus cases at home.

“It has been the most challenging week he has had, no doubt about it,” Democratic strategist Mike Morey, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), acknowledged. 

When it comes to Afghanistan, more than a half-dozen Democrats interviewed said the challenge for Biden will be in the evacuation of Americans and allies in the coming weeks.

“You now have to do whatever is necessary to provide security, to provide a degree of order, and to provide a process to make sure that you will evacuate all U.S. personnel and certainly the Afghans who helped us during the war,” Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of defense under President Obama, told The Hill. 

“I think it’s important not to be tied to a timeline on that but to really focus on getting that job done,” he added. “That’s absolutely critical right now in order to complete the mission.” 

Biden delivered a speech Friday to assure the public that his administration is committed to evacuating Americans, Afghans who assisted U.S. forces and others at risk. He has pledged to keep U.S. troops there past his Aug. 31 withdrawal date if the evacuation of Americans is not complete. 

“Make no mistake, this evacuation mission is dangerous. It involves risks to our armed forces and it’s being conducted under difficult circumstances,” Biden said. “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be or … that it will be without risk of loss. But as commander in chief, I can assure you that I will mobilize every resource necessary.”

As of Saturday, U.S. officials had evacuated about 17,000 people from Afghanistan since August 14.

Biden has stood firm in his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The White House is betting that Biden’s argument that the war was not serving U.S. interests will resonate with the American public, a majority of which has consistently disapproved of U.S. involvement in the 20-year war.

“Now that he’s ripped the band aid off, he needs to make sure that it stays off,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “You deal with the incoming, you try and figure out where the problems are and deal with it and they should feel comfortable, when it comes to polling at least, the American people support getting our troops out of Afghanistan.”

Yet the crisis confronting Biden isn’t so much the decision to leave Afghanistan, but in how it was done. And his ability to bounce back from the messy withdrawal will depend on a number of factors outside his control, including the Taliban, which has been preventing some people from reaching Kabul’s airport.

“The challenge here is to move as expeditiously as possible to get out the people they need to get out and to do so with a minimum of chaos,” said Charles Kupchan, who served in posts at the National Security Council under the Obama and Clinton administrations. 

“Those pictures of families sitting on the tarmac, those are painful pictures that are politically costly,” he said. “I do think that when the dust settles, Biden’s decision will look much better.”

In terms of politics, Biden and the White House are betting success on the domestic front will make voters forget the botched end of the American war in Afghanistan. Biden sees his political fortunes as being tied to his handling of the pandemic and the economy. 

The situation is mixed on both fronts. Jobless claims fell to a new low on Thursday, and while COVID-19 cases continue to rise, so do vaccinations. The U.S. last week recorded 1 million daily vaccine doses three days in a row, the highest numbers in almost seven weeks. 

The delta variant, however, is raging in areas of the country that have low vaccination rates. The Biden administration is gearing up to begin administering booster shots to many vaccinated Americans and to help schools open and stay open for the fall. 

“These are the kinds of moments that make or break a presidency,” said one Democratic donor. “It could overtake him or he can show he’s got it all under control and managed.”

Part of it requires Biden to bide his time and ride out the news cycles, some political observers say.  

“He’s going to have to suffer through some of this,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “The attention span of the public is short and if the next thing that happens is handled better that will be what drives the news. He has to be ready for the next situation.” 

Inside the administration, some officials are feeling demoralized by the state of affairs in Afghanistan. One State Department source described a “sense of extreme concern and constant unease” among officials as they scramble to evacuate Americans and Afghans from Kabul.

Afghanistan is likely to dominate headlines for the next several days, but it’s too early to tell how much it will overshadow Biden’s domestic agenda.

“One of the questions here is how long this is going to drag out and whether it is going to continue to dominate the media like it is now,” said Manley. 

The House is scheduled to return from August recess early next week and Democrats are expected to vote to adopt the Senate-passed budget to tee up the $3.5 trillion package containing a collection of Biden’s policy priorities. 

Multiple Democrat-controlled congressional committees are seeking answers about Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Democrats are cognizant that Republicans, some of whom backed former President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the country, are also looking to capitalize on the situation to damage Biden. 

“Any time you have events that go bad, there’s no question that there will be an impact on the political side, but the question of whether it’s short term or long term will depend a lot on how you handle looking on what went wrong and what you’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Panetta. 

“I think, ultimately, there are a hell of a lot of other issues that probably occupy the attention of Americans more than Afghanistan in terms of the future but if this thing continues to drag on, there’s no question it could have some impact,” he added. 


Tags Afghanistan Barack Obama Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Harry Reid Joe Biden Kabul Taliban

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