Biden attempts to turn page on Afghanistan with domestic refocus

The White House is trying to move past the chaotic and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by turning its attention to domestic priorities like President Biden’s economic agenda.

Biden is gearing up for what promises to be a bruising intraparty battle to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill that’s packed with some of his biggest policy goals. But he’s also poised to score a major bipartisan victory if the House passes a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package later this month.

More immediately, Biden will deliver a speech Thursday on the federal government’s response to the Hurricane Ida, the latest challenge facing his administration. He will travel to Louisiana to survey the storm’s damage the next day.

Administration officials are also grappling with rising COVID-19 case numbers, striking at the heart of Biden’s chief priority since taking office in January.

“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 in the Gulf Coast know he is doing absolutely everything in his power to make sure they have power,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday when asked if Biden views this moment as a time he can shift his focus from Afghanistan.

“He knows that he has to do multiple things as president in order to govern the country,” she said.

Amid the final days of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden was also meeting with his homeland security team on the impacts of the hurricane. On Monday, met virtually with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) and leaders at the local level to assess the damage and recovery efforts.

“This was a huge undertaking and now, the president and the White House are certainly going to turn their attention towards a really busy September. If there’s nothing else that we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we’ve got some really tough challenges. COVID is still with us, our infrastructure needs repair, care is still a major issue so the domestic agenda is here and I think it’s going to be a tough month,” said Micaela Fernandez Allen, who served as special assistant to former President Obama in the Office of Legislative Affairs and is now director of advocacy at Open Society-U.S.

Biden allies think the public’s attention could shift back to domestic issues as soon as the end of the week, when the August jobs numbers from the Labor Department will offer a more fulsome picture of how the economic recovery has held up amid the surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus. In addition to the Louisiana trip, Biden is scheduled to deliver remarks on the jobs report Friday.

“I expect that the conversation will turn back to domestic politics very quickly, and it will return as early as Friday when the jobs numbers come out and then continue throughout the month as we do the high-wire act on reconciliation and the infrastructure bill,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist think tank Third Way.

“What happened in Afghanistan was important and riveting. One of the reasons we’re leaving Afghanistan after 20 years is that America stopped caring a long time ago. It’s unfortunate for the people in Afghanistan, but Americans will stop caring very soon again,” he said.

Biden made clear in his White House speech Tuesday that he views threats from Russia and China as the United States’ foremost foreign policy challenges, more so than Afghanistan, and that addressing them means shoring up U.S. competitiveness at home.

“Leaving Afghanistan provides the opportunity to recalibrate and invest in both domestic and foreign policy that is more reflective of current priorities,” said Nick Rathod, former White House deputy director for intergovernmental affairs during the Obama administration.

“This is significant considering China, Russia and other countries that we haven’t been able to fully devote resources towards and address current and emerging threats to our geopolitical standing.”

But that doesn’t mean attention will completely shift attention away from Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday that he will travel to the Persian Gulf region next week to thank countries that are housing Afghan refugees.

Events beyond the administration’s control are also likely to keep Afghanistan in the public’s mind for some time.

Republicans have seized on the chaotic exit to criticize Biden’s leadership, with some even calling for impeachment or his resignation.

The 20 year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will also resurface criticism of how the nation’s longest war ended, and Congress will soon launch hearings and investigations into the Afghanistan withdrawal. There’s also the ongoing effort to get Americans and at-risk Afghans out of the country.

Additionally, the administration will need to vet the Afghan allies who seek refuge in the U.S. at a time when many GOP lawmakers are arguing they shouldn’t be allowed in the country.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said it’s too early to determine whether and to what extent the Afghanistan exit will define Biden’s legacy but argued that the current media environment could make it difficult for Biden to move beyond it.

“He is stuck in an era in which it is more likely that presidents can’t rebound from military debacles because of 24/7 media and social media and the public and the press’s demand that presidents constantly come before the public and explain themselves,” Perry said.

However, she said the constant appetite for news could mean the media moves on quickly to the next crisis, benefiting Biden in the long run. Even before the completion of the Afghanistan withdrawal, top headlines shifted to the unfolding disaster of Hurricane Ida.

“There is precedent for presidents moving beyond. Sometimes it just depends on what comes after and how the president deals with what comes after,” Perry said.

Biden has seen a dip in his approval ratings since taking office in January.

Polling released Wednesday by the firm Navigator Research, a Democratic firm, found that the president’s overall approval has dropped 8 percentage points, to 47 percent, since the beginning of August. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they disapproved of his handling of the situation in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Biden’s polling numbers on the economy and coronavirus remain steady. Fifty-four percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, while 48 percent approve of how he’s steering the economy.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“It’s no doubt that he took some hits in August between COVID numbers rising and of course Afghanistan. The upside going into the fall is that regardless of the challenges we had leaving Afghanistan, we are now out of that war, which continues to be considered the right decision amongst Americans,” Rathod said.

Other Democrats are also looking to put the focus back on Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday will participate in a press conference in Austin, Texas, with Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who chairs the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, to highlight health-related provisions in Democrats’ forthcoming $3.5 trillion package.

Democrats are drafting the spending package over the next two weeks in hopes of passing it through a process that allows them to sidestep Republican opposition. Democratic leaders say the package will include funding for health care expansions, universal pre-K and tuition-free community college, public housing investments and clean energy efforts.

Democrats see the passage of the $3.5 trillion package as necessary to boost the party’s fortunes in the midterm elections.

“Combined with what Democrats did both on infrastructure and the rescue package and this, if the economy is moving forward, then the biggest question that voters have about a Democratic administration will be answered in the affirmative, which is, can they be stewards of a very difficult economic recovery and bring us back,” Kessler said. “It will be helpful. If the bill goes down, it hurts.”

Scott Wong contributed.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal Barack Obama domestic agenda Foreign policy Jen Psaki Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Lloyd Doggett Nancy Pelosi

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