When NBC’s Peter Alexander asked President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE on Wednesday what would happen if there are still Americans in Afghanistan after the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, what we saw, at first, was that signature Biden smirk. The audio cut out, but you could make out Biden’s retort: “You’ll be the first person I call.”
That’s not the Joe Biden who got elected in November at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that’s not the president America needs right now as we face tremendously steep challenges, especially in light of the suspected suicide bomb attacks outside Kabul airport on Thursday that reportedly killed 13 U.S. service members and at leaset 90 Afghan civilians, and wounded more than 150.
A moment of levity isn’t the problem. Biden’s ability to crack a joke usually has worked in his favor over the years, defining him relatable to the wider public. But we are in full crisis mode. Every little smirk, wisecrack, or perception of a cavalier attitude is hurting the administration’s efforts to successfully end this 20-year war with as few casualties as possible, and their reputation as the “adults in the room.”
Don’t take just my word for it. The most recent YouGov survey found that 68 percent of Americans believe the evacuation was handled badly, versus a mere 16 percent who think it was handled well. And the findings are relatively bipartisan. Fifty-five percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents, and 84 percent of Republicans see it that way. Those results go along with Biden’s lowest approval ratings of any point in his presidency, with his Real Clear Politics average at 46.9 percent and a CBS poll showing that a majority of Americans don’t see him as competent.
Not much to smile about there. All hope is not lost, though — both electorally for Biden and the Democrats and for a successful Afghanistan withdrawal.
Step 1: Bring back the empathizer in chief. The 2020 election took place under unprecedented circumstances with the rise of COVID-19 and ensuing economic fallout. As history has shown us, it is incredibly hard to beat a president after just one term. Biden was able to do it because of his humanity, ability to connect, and empathy.
This moment in our history requires that same sentimentality, especially now that we have lost service members and will have a fuller picture of who else died at the Kabul airport. Biden’s speech on Thursday showed emotion, but it continued to lack connection — and clarity — for many.
This loss of American life, and the uncertain path forward, demand a primetime address. A national address is necessary to express Biden’s sympathies and concern for the Americans and Afghans who fought alongside us in the most formal and presidential venue possible. It is deserving of that. The evacuation numbers, thus far, are impressive: over 104,000 out in general, including 5,000 Americans, and there are fewer than 1,000 Americans left to be saved according to the State Department. But this is no time for bragging or cold recitation of numbers. Americans want to see the human side of our government right now — with a clear plan beyond what we have heard, and the righteous anger of an American president whose men and women have been attacked.
Step 2: Biden must further speak to his Aug. 20 pledge that “any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response.” After Thursday’s events, it’s obvious that our response has been inadequate. It is a dramatically different scene today than it was even 24 hours ago, with more fast-moving changes to come. A coordinated interagency plan that meets the moment and hostility in Afghanistan is necessary — and surely supported across the board. While Biden is right to stick to his guns about the exit overall, there is more that is owed to a reeling American public.
Step 3: Biden’s much-panned decision to lead his press conference on Tuesday by touting the achievements of his “Build Back Better” program and the ability of House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Photos of the Week: Climate protests, Blue Origin and a koala MORE (D-Calif.) to get her entire caucus to sign onto the $3.5 trillion budget plan cannot happen again. There are huge domestic victories to speak of, but now is not the time for the president to focus on anything but Afghanistan and our mission there. Biden’s surrogates, specifically Transportation Secretary Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegButtigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations - US opens to vaccinated visitors as FDA panel discusses boosters Tucker Carlson mocks Buttigieg over paternity leave MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Briahna Joy Gray: Proposals favored by Black voters 'first at the chopping block' in spending talks MORE (I-Vt.), are the ones who should be hitting the trail, talking up these big wins, and selling the Democrats’ agenda. Biden can’t be seen to be spending time on anything else — and as this unfolds it is becoming clear that Afghanistan will be an election issue for the midterms.
The news is moving faster than usual and, unfortunately, the number of casualties is certain to rise. Biden can save the moment for himself, his party, Americans trapped in Afghanistan, and the millions that are watching this horror unfold. But he must change his approach.
Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.