The scenes from Kabul speak for themselves about the human costs of the US withdrawal and takeover by the Taliban.
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As for US domestic politics, a key question is whether the debacle is a turning point, a harbinger of hard times for the president — or whether it’s seen as a traumatic but short-term bump in the road.
Biden’s honeymoon, as it was, was coming to an end, even without the situation in Afghanistan.
The early success of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has given way to new concerns fueled by the delta variant. The country sees about 140,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection every day, a level unprecedented since last winter’s peak.
The fate of Biden’s pressure on infrastructure is uncertain. Tensions between moderate and progressive Democrats raise the question of whether he will be able to turn his two separate infrastructure proposals — one costing about $1 trillion and the other about $3.5 trillion — into law, especially when his party has such tight congressional majorities.
The economy seemed – and could remain – a bright spot for Biden, but inflation concerns have not gone away.
Meanwhile, attempts at illegal crossing of the southwestern border are near all-time highs. The issue has received limited mainstream media coverage but is a huge story for more conservative voters.
All of these ingredients would create a challenging environment for any president, even without the shame of Afghanistan falling into chaos.
The scenes earlier this week of desperate Afghans clinging to a US military plane were reminiscent of the kind of “Saigon moment” Biden had recently claimed would not happen.
Republicans, predictably, think the episode could fundamentally change the political standing of a president who has so far enjoyed solid public approval.
“He has a short-term problem and a long-term problem,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and Republican Party chairman in Travis County, Texas.
“The short term problem is that he has to deal with this crisis and it is getting worse by the minute. The long-term problem is that he now faces real challenges in convincing voters of his ability to make decisions,” he said.
Mackowiak added: “The crisis in Afghanistan casts doubt on his ability to be an effective president of the United States, and that’s really sad.”
While Republicans have clear motivations for making such points, Biden has been doing himself no favors this week.
The crisis was in full swing before he delivered a speech from the White House on Monday. Even then, the address was criticized that Biden had tried to put the blame on others, including the Afghans themselves, in a speech that then had a standard affirmation that “the buck stops with me” on the label.
On Wednesday, excerpts from an upcoming interview with George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosOvernight Defense: Top General Admits Information Missed the Speed of Afghan Collapse Biden Says Troops Will Stay In Afghanistan Until All Americans Are Out The disaster in Afghanistan puts the intelligence service under the microscope MORE of ABC News showed Biden claiming the “chaos” in Afghanistan could not have been avoided, answering “yes” when asked if it was “priced in” in his decision to withdraw US troops.
In the short clip, Biden seemed both defensive and irritable — hardly an ideal combination when dealing with his first major foreign policy crisis.
Polls show erosion in Biden’s position. A Reuters/IPSOS poll conducted Monday found his rating at the lowest point of his presidency, with just 46 percent of Americans backing his achievements.
An Economist/YouGov poll conducted Aug. 14-17 showed that the public was evenly divided on Biden, with 47 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving of how he does his job.
Still, a separate Reuters poll focused purely on Afghanistan supported some of Biden’s main arguments.
The poll, also conducted on Monday, found that 61 percent of adults still support a planned withdrawal from the US. An even higher number, 68 percent, agreed with the sentiment that “the war in Afghanistan would end badly no matter when the US left.”
The hope in the White House will be that this underlying similarity to Biden’s position will eventually prevail, especially as this week’s images fade from the headlines.
But even some Democrats are concerned about how voters will judge the Afghanistan fiasco and whether it will have spillover effects in terms of the general electorate’s view of Biden.
“Most Americans think we should have gotten out of Afghanistan a long time ago, so I don’t think the big issue is his decision to come out when he did,” Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said. “What voters are looking at is, can they make good decisions in moments of crisis, when the lives of soldiers and American citizens abroad are at stake?”
Smikle added: “That’s probably the only story of the moment that can stretch into the meantime.”
At this point, Biden and his advisers would like to alleviate the immediate crisis.
Only when that is achieved will we really know how much political damage has been done.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.