Analysis: The big bet Joe Biden is making on Afghanistan

He — and his top aides– wouldn’t put it that way, of course.

But every signal he and they are sending makes clear that they simply do not believe the debacle of the last 10 days will be a voting issue for most Americans.

Start with Biden’s first speech on Afghanistan six days ago — his first major remarks since the Taliban effectively took over the country. While Biden bowed to the dangers posed by the need to evacuate thousands of Americans from the country, he was resolute about his decision to withdraw all American troops from the country.

Here’s the key bit: “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”

The message was clear: We are not staying in Afghanistan indefinitely — no matter how ugly things looks right now.

That position was built on two things: 1) Biden’s belief that, in his words in that same speech, “our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building” and 2) the clear desire of the American public to end America’s longest war.

“At least until the events of this weekend, though, Americans supported Biden’s decision to remove US military forces from Afghanistan. Most polls conducted since the beginning of July show that a sizable majority of Americans supported Biden’s decision.”

And when he said sizable, he meant it; most polling conducted prior to mid-August showed support for Biden’s withdrawal out-running opposition to it by a whopping 30-plus points.
Now, in the wake of the horrifying images — people clinging to a US cargo plane at the Kabul airport as it taxis down a runway, a crying baby being handed to US military over a fence — coming out of Afghanistan, public opinion has changed. Six in 10 people said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan in a new NBC poll. Three-quarters of respondents (74%) said that the removal of troops from the country has gone “very badly” (44%) or “somewhat badly (30%) in new CBS News numbers. Biden’s overall job approval numbers have also fallen of late — dipping below 50% for the first time in his presidency even before the latest happenings in Afghanistan.

But in the face of these falling poll numbers — and loud criticism from not just Republicans but fellow Democrats — Biden and his inner circle haven’t moved an inch.

Asked directly about his declining poll numbers in regards Afghanistan (and more generally), Biden responded this way on Sunday:

“Look, I had a basic decision to make: I either withdraw America from a 20-year war that, depending on whose analyses you accept, cost us $150 million a day for 20 years or $300 million a day for 20 years; who — and I — you know I carry this card with me every day — and who — in fact, where we lost 2,448 Americans dead and 20,722 wounded. Either increase the number of forces we’d keep — we keep there and keep that going, or I end the war. And I decided to end the war.”

And it’s more than just Biden. This, from Axios om Sunday, is instructive about how the Biden White House views Afghanistan as part of the bigger political climate:

“The White House is downplaying Afghanistan during outside-the-Beltway events, hoping voters will pay more attention to President Biden’s big spending plans. …White House senior adviser Neera Tanden didn’t mention Afghanistan once when we asked her how much the events of the past week will affect what Biden can accomplish on the Hill. ‘We developed our plan around August [congressional] recess in July,’ she said. ‘We planned for a cadence of multiple events a week around Build Back Better and infrastructure and we have been operationalizing that plan and will continue to do so.'”

Kevin Collins, a Democratic strategist, put the political calculation by Biden bluntly — and well — in a series of tweets. Wrote Collins:

“For better or (probably) worse, the American people don’t really care about foreign policy unless there is a highly publicized case of Americans being in danger. If they get Americans out (and they should get Afghanis out too, but that’s more or less besides the point here), Biden’s approval numbers will not be affected by Afghanistan positively or negatively. Biden’s approval — and Democrats’ 2022 chances — hinge instead on the intertwined issues of COVID and the economy. That’s not to say they shouldn’t do the right thing and get as many Afghan Allies out as possible, but that they can do the right thing and not worry.”

Biden’s bet is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against Covid-19.

It’s not an insubstantial gamble — especially if the situation in Afghanistan worsens in ways that are easily digestible by the American public. Such a scenario could lead to further erosion in Biden’s overall approval numbers and Afghanistan could become indicative of broader doubts within the electorate that Biden actually knows what he is doing.

Politics is about risk-taking and making educated guesses. But this is a BIG one for Biden to take so early in his presidency.


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