Democrats worry negative images are defining White House

Democrats are worried that Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE’s presidency is at an inflection point where his administration risks being defined by a series of negative and disturbing images from Afghanistan and the border. 

A picture is worth a thousand words, and the Biden White House wants its image to be one of professionals restoring order, empathy and compassion after what Democrats say was the chaos, dysfunction and cold-heartedness of the Trump years. 

The early months of Biden’s first year in office mostly went according to script, but things have started to come off the rails as the stark footage from the border and Afghanistan, two consistently difficult issues for the president, crystalize in the public view.

ADVERTISEMENT

Video and photos from Afghanistan last month depicted agonizing scenes of people climbing onto military aircrafts to escape. One video, which went viral on Twitter, appeared to show people falling to their death from the undercarriage of a plane.

And this week, the administration has had to respond to images of Border Patrol agents on horseback rounding up Haitian refugees on the Texas-Mexico border.

In both cases, the White House has taken criticism from erstwhile allies in addition to Republicans, and officials have had to defend themselves and the policies from the same charges frequently leveled at the Trump administration of incompetence and callousness. 

“What we witnessed takes us back hundreds of years,” Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersAffordable housing is critical infrastructure — its funding doesn't show it Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? House Democrats scramble to save housing as Biden eyes cuts MORE (D-Calif.) said Wednesday in response to scenes at the border. “What we witnessed was worse than what we witnessed and slavery. Cowboys — with the reins again — whipping Black people, Haitians, into the water where they're scrambling and falling down and all they're trying to do is escape from violence in their country.”

The administration has promised a swift investigation of the incidents, and it has sought to cast its evacuation of more than 100,000 Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan as a historic achievement. 

Yet Biden’s approval ratings have fallen amid the difficult stretch, and Democratic operatives acknowledge the pictures present a challenge for the White House. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“Political stories are often told through images, and the images have been really strong and they almost supersede what’s in the column space below them,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. 

Payne says the White House needs to ensure it contextualizes the photos and reacts quickly. 

“It’s very important to balance out those images with context,” he said. “It’s always better to preempt the story, not be in reaction mode.”

On the issue of immigration in particular, the president finds himself receiving strong backlash from liberals in his party who now doubt his empathy for migrants. 

And with both the border and Afghanistan, the bad pictures are reflective of wider policies that Biden must either defend or alter.

“Afghanistan is policy, which the photos represent,” said Bill Kristol, a leading conservative voice who was a staunch critic of the Trump administration. “They do raise kind of basic questions of execution and competency.”

Biden has to look back just at the Trump era to see how quickly pictures can define an administration’s policies. Trump’s “American First” border agenda came to be marked by a policy that kept migrant children in detention facilities and separated from their families. 

Biden pledged to take a different approach before entering office. He appointed Vice President Harris to help address the existing gaps in the immigration system exasperated under Trump. 

Harris, who has had her own ups and downs on border issues, was one of the first in the White House to criticize this week’s scenes of agents handling Haitian immigrants poorly, saying she was “deeply troubled.” 

“What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were was horrible,” she said. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.” 

Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State under the Obama administration, says it can be difficult for administrations to react quickly when images in the media get significant traction and become symbols of a policy. 

He suggested it can be particularly tricky at places like the State Department. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s a culture based on privacy and discretion,” Rubin said. “There’s 20 people that work on an issue. When a photograph comes up and it’s in the media cycle, it affects all 20. But not all 20 are empowered to do something about that, get out in front of the camera and speak. There’s a bureaucracy to it.”

“It creates stress on policymakers, absolutely,” he added. “It creates a political environment that shapes the policy response.”

While Biden campaigned heavily on his foreign policy experience, the White House has long seen Biden’s fortunes being closely tied to two domestic issues: His ability to steer the nation out of the coronavirus pandemic and soundly restore the economy. 

Philippe Reines, who has dealt with multiple international crises as a senior adviser for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE, put it this way: “It’s COVID, stupid.” 

As a result, some Democrats close to Biden do not think Afghanistan or the border will determine his fate. At least not yet.

“The biggest impact is COVID. And then the economy,” said Celinda Lake, a leading pollster who advised Biden’s presidential campaign.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet both issues have caused consternation within Democratic circles while enlivening Republicans, who believe it is increasing their chances of gaining back majorities in Congress next year. 

It could also add to the difficulty Biden faces in moving his legislative agenda through Capitol Hill. 

Some of the Democrats blasting him for the most recent photos at the border are the same ones he is coaxing to back an infrastructure bill already passed by the Senate that progressives want to hold up until centrists offer support for a larger $3.5 trillion social infrastructure package.

“You want to fill the media vacuum with enough content that citizens have a balanced view of them,” Payne said, addressing the multiple issues facing Team Biden. That way, he said, “the president [can] talk values and big picture-objectives ahead of these acute one-off events.”