It has been a couple of hard weeks for President Joe Biden. Even before the astonishing collapse of the American supported government in Afghanistan, his approval rating among American voters had slipped below 50% for the first time since he became President in January. This marked the end of the “honeymoon” period of his administration – a period in which Americans traditionally give a new president their support to see what he or she can do. The swift victory of the Taliban and the chaos that followed brought this period to a brutal end. In the first months of his presidency Biden had famously proclaimed to the world that “America is back!” on the world stage. But America’s swift and chaotic retreat from Kabul have led some commentators to ask if America hasn’t rather “Turned its back” on the world, rather than returned to it.
This article will concentrate on three of the great challenges Biden faced when he took office in January – taming the COVID epidemic, getting America’s economy up and running, and re-establishing America’s leading role in the world community. It will then briefly look to the future.
When Joe Biden came to power his first priority was to get COVID under control. He promised to get 100 million American vaccinated in his first 100 days in office. He met that goal in only 58 days and went on to vaccinate 200 million before that same deadline Then he set goal of getting 70% of all American’s vaccinated with at least one dose of a vaccine by the 4th of July, America’s national holiday.
And that proved to be too much.
The campaign faltered and stalled because of widespread skepticism of vaccination among Americans. In part, this was because of misinformation spread through the social media. But it also mirrored the deep-seated political division in the US between the Republicans and the Democrats. COVID had become “politicized” during the Trump years. At heart lay an inbuilt skepticism of “experts” and “science” among many Republicans (See graph below). This skepticism was reflected on the ground. Where the Republicans were strongest – in the South and West of the country – numbers of vaccinated were lowest. In the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast where Democrats were strongest, numbers were highest.
Eventually Biden did reach his goal of getting 70% of the population vaccinated in early August. Meanwhile, however, the new Delta variant of COVID had begun to spread quickly through the unvaccinated population of the South and West, causing a surge in infections and deaths. Although the vaccination program has picked up speed again, the difference in numbers between Republicans and Democrats and between different regions of the country continues, undermining the containment of COVID nationally. (1)
Getting America Back on Track
Like countries all over the world, COVID dealt a devastating blow to the American economy in 2020. Although the Trump administration passed several large relief bills, it was too little, too late in the view of many Democrats. They wanted major government spending like that found during the New Deal. That is why Biden’s campaign slogan had been “Build Back Better!” He wanted to spend up to $2 trillion rebuilding much of America’s crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, ports and railways.
That would be an enormous stimulus for the economy, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. But he needed the cooperation of the Republicans to get the money. The election of 2020 had split the Senate 50/50 between the two parties, giving the Democrats the slimmest possible majority, using Vice President Kamala Harris’ one vote in case of a deadlock. For the infrastructure bill to pass the Senate Biden needed at least a 2/3s majority (in practice 67 of 100 votes). That meant gaining the support of 17 Republican Senators. In the poisonous and divided atmosphere of Washington, it did not seem likely that Biden would have much luck.
But Biden had spent decades as a Senator himself and knew the system well. Much to the surprise of his critics, he announced in June he had gotten the support of the necessary 17 Republican Senators for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. In part, this was because the program was very popular among Americans in general and the Republicans did not want to be left behind. But it was also a testament to the persuasive power of Biden. He had promised to try to bring Republicans and Democrats together to find “bipartisan” solutions to Americans problems and this seemed to be a successful example of just that.
But Biden is not out of the woods yet. As this is written, the Senate’s infrastructure bill has been sent on to House of Representatives where it will undoubtedly be changed before it is sent back to the Senate to be passed once more (both the House and the Senate must agree on major bills before they are sent on to the President to be signed into law. This leaves room for lots more pushing and shoving.
It has been said that politics is “the art of the possible.” (2) It still remains to be seen what is possible for Biden in today’s divided Washington.
The Forever War
Within his first months in power, Biden reversed many of the foreign policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump. He stopped the US from pulling out of the World Health Organization. He rejoined the Paris climate change agreement. He reestablished close relation with his NATO allies. He rallied the forces of democracy around the world to stand up to the growing power of autocratic governments, particularly in Russia and China. This is what he meant with “America is back!”
But there was one Trump policy that he did not reverse – ending America’s war in Afghanistan. Trump had made an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw US troops by May 1, 2021. Biden decided to honor that agreement, changing the deadline to the symbolic date of September 11, 2021. That date would mark the end of 20 years of continuous warfare – the longest war in American history, the “The Forever War.” Despite two decades of effort, $2 trillion dollars and more than 2500 American casualties (not to speak of the more than 100.000 Afghan casualties), it had proved impossible to crush the Taliban or create a strong pro-Western government in Kabul. The American public had grown tired of this never-ending effort. 70% favored getting out of Afghanistan. (3) That was why they had supported Trump’s agreement and that is why Biden decided to honor it.
Defeat and debacle
But having an agreement and actually putting it into practice proved to be two very different things. Instead of an orderly withdrawal, when NATO troops started to leave in August the Taliban quickly overran the country. This created chaos. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians who had worked with America and its NATO allies rushed to get out. Pictures of desperate Afghanis storming the airport in Kabul and clinging to American airplanes as they took off flashed around the world. The defeat of America and its allies in Afghanistan was swift, humiliating and complete. It sent shock waves around the world.
For many Europeans, it confirmed what former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundland had said years before – they could “no longer take for granted that they can trust the U.S., even on basic things.” (4) German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that, “This is a particularly bitter development. Bitter, dramatic and terrible.” (5) Within the EU, there were renewed calls for a separate military force to make it less dependent on America in the future. Meanwhile, as one American commentator put it, “China and Russia are having a field day saying: This is your partner?” This was not the image of America Biden had been hoping for with the words, “America is back.” (6)
The impact was serious at home, as well. Fully 69% felt Biden had failed to handle the withdrawal successfully. The Republicans were particularly critical, with 82% saying they strongly disapproved of him. (7) Biden’s general approval rating among Americans fell from just under 50% in early August to only 43% by early September. His disapproval rate rose to 51%. (8)
As noted, it is not unusual for a president to lose support after the first “honeymoon” period. But the drop in support for Biden over the past weeks has been severe. It remains to be seen if this will have long-term effects. That will depend on a number of factors.
Will the COVID cases go on increasing? If so, what measures will he have to take to handle the situation and how popular (or unpopular) will they be?
Will Democrats and Republicans in the Senate continue to support his infrastructure bill (much less his more expensive plans)? One Democratic Senator has already hinted that he will not vote for anything that costly. (9)
Most importantly, what will happen in Afghanistan? If the country reverts to the brutal and repressive dictatorship the Taliban imposed in the 1990s, Afghanistan may haunt Biden for the rest of his four years in office. The worst case would be if the country again became a breeding ground for terrorist attacks worldwide. Both Biden’s and America’s international reputation hang in the balance.
At home, it is now a little over one year before the next “mid-term” election is held. All of the seats in the House of Representatives and one third of the seats Senate will be up for grabs (see Access to English: Social Studies, Congress – legislative powers, pp. 186-187). If the Democrats lose a majority in either chamber, it will give the Republicans the power to block most of Biden’s plans for the following two years, greatly weakening his presidency.
Therefore, Biden needs to quickly repair the damage to himself and the Democratic Party caused by Afghanistan. He has come out swinging, strongly defending his decision to withdraw from the war in a speech on August 31;
“I was not going to extend this forever war,..I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan…I give you my word: With all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.” (10)
The American people will have one year to make up their minds if they agree with him. Meanwhile the rest of the world will watch developments in Afghanistan anxiously.
NOTES ON SOURCES
- “The US has reached Biden’s July 4 goal to vaccinate 70% of adults — about a month late,” August 2, 2021
2. “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” – Otto von Bismarck
3. “US Public Supports Withdrawal From Afghanistan,” August 9, 2021
4. “America is Back – but for How Long?” June 14, 2021
5/6. “Biden promised allies ‘America is back.’ Chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal is making them fear it’s still ‘America First.’” August 19, 2021
7. “Majority of U.S. public favors Afghanistan troop withdrawal; Biden criticized for his handling of situation,” August 31, 2021
8. “This poll number will send Democrats into a panic,” September 2, 2021
9. “Joe Manchin voted to advance the $3.5 trillion budget bill — now he says Democrats should press pause,” September 2, 2021
10. “Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan,” August 31, 2021
This article is written by AreaS member Robert Lewis Mikkelsen and was published by Cappelen Damm Updates in September 2021.