Thursday, September 2, 2021

BTRTN: Is the Biden Afghanistan Bashing Overdone?

Tom with the BTRTN August 2021 Month in Review.

Perhaps nothing has signaled the return to normalcy so much in the Biden presidency as the reaction to the Afghanistan exit fiasco.  From the bipartisan excoriation of his Administration’s handling of the pullout, to the gleeful ranting from the mainstream media, we could have been back in the 20th century, when presidents were held accountable when things went south.

 

But while Biden certainly deserves critiques for the chaos of the exit, the intensity of the overall reaction was almost certainly overstated.  Biden made the right decision to finally withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and having made that decision, he was doomed to suffer though an unpopular endgame, because there was no easy exit solution  -- that was the problem all along.  And for all the savage criticism he has received for the bungled exit, the actual impact on his approval rating has been rather modest, certainly by historical standards.


To briefly review the bidding…President George W. Bush declared war in Afghanistan in October, 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, when the Taliban was aiding and harboring Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks.  This was a popular move, and Bush vowed to track down Osama bin Laden.  At this he failed, allowing Bin Laden to slip away and hide out in Tora Bora.  Bush soon distracted himself with the War on Iraq, a war of vengeance (for the Gulf War and threats to his father) that relied on extremely faulty intelligence involving links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and the secret development of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq.  Neither claim carried a shred of truth.  Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan proved to be the very definition of “quagmire,” much like Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the war dragging on endlessly.

 

Bush had aggressively engaged in a “nation building” effort to create a modern Afghan state, protected by a well-equipped Afghan military capability with the will required to protect the country from a Taliban resurgence.  But, in time, it became clear, given continued fighting with an ongoing Taliban insurgency, this fantasy could only work with a deep, sustained U.S. military presence, one that Americans had little appetite to support, particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden under the Obama Administration.  In time, over 2,500 U.S. troops were killed in the war.  The troop commitment waxed and waned under Bush and Obama, neither of whom saw a viable way to exit without Afghanistan returning to its former status as a breeding ground for terrorists.  During the war, under the propped-up Afghan government, there were significant advances in Afghan society, including more rights for women and far better public education.  And the Afghan army was trained and equipped by the U.S. and NATO allies, who fought alongside them.

 

But President Trump viewed an exit from Afghanistan as consistent with his "America First" foreign policy, and in April, 2020, he negotiated a U.S./NATO withdrawal with the Taliban, which essentially traded the U.S. exit on May 1, 2021, for no more killing of U.S. soldiers.  There was lip service to the requirement that the Taliban would ensure that Al Qaeda would not be supported on Afghan soil, but there were no material enforcement provisions.  Biden, long wary of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, chose to honor the deal upon his election, but pushed the departure date back to August 31.

 

Biden thus tacitly accepted all the downsides that would accompany the exit, since, as Bush and Obama had long ago concluded, there was no good withdrawal option.  The Taliban was widely expected to re-take the country after the U.S. and NATO were gone, the only question was how quickly.  Had Biden decided to evacuate all U.S. citizens before the military, he would have been widely seen as washing his hands of the matter, infuriating our Afghan partners, and demoralizing the Afghan military.  Biden’s true mistake was in failing to consider the old maxim, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.”  The optimistic operating assumption was that the Taliban would take a while to overthrow the state, perhaps 18 months, and in that time a more orderly (and under the radar) civilian exit might be possible.

 

Biden openly telegraphed the expectation of a slow Taliban takeover to the world, stating in early July, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy…of the United States from Afghanistan.”  This complete miscalculation – and his uneven initial performance as the crisis unfolded -- was a political disaster for Biden, undercutting a number of core strengths on which he was elected:  his deep experience, his foreign policy chops, his competence and even his empathy, which was, at first, notably subordinated to his intense frustration.

 

Biden and his team then righted itself and focused admirably on the withdrawal, and the kudos they began to receive for the massive and brilliantly executed airlift of over 120,000 Americans in a matter of days were well-earned.  Had it ended there, Biden might have easily rode out the criticism.  However, in the waning days of the airlift, an ISIS-K suicide bomber infiltrated the chaotic scene outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the blast killed at least 170 civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military. 

 

This last blow, coupled with the inability to rescue every single America left in Afghanistan (a few hundred, at least, remain) as well as tens of thousands of Afghan allies who also want to leave, ensured a major ongoing U.S. stake in the region.  In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Biden vowed to find and kill the ISIS-K terrorists (“we will hunt you down and make you pay.”), and drone attacks on ISIS-K and diplomatic efforts to extract those remaining were already underway.  Add to this the issues associated with welcoming Afghans who escaped into America and other Western nations, and the potential for terrorist activity emanating from Afghan soil, and it is clear that Biden will enjoy no clean break from our 20-year misadventure.

 

Throughout all of this, Democrats and Republicans alike castigated the Biden Administration, which was buffeted by wretched optics of Afghan would-be escapees falling off of rescue planes, babies being handed over airport walls and thousands milling around the airport perimeter, desperate for passage.  CNN and The New York Times seemed to take special delight in bashing Biden, eager for a post-Trump opportunity to provide 24-hour coverage of the missteps, and also to bend over backwards to demonstrate their non-partisan chops.

 

Lost in the Biden reprisals were the roles Bush and Dick Cheney played in instigating the senseless war in Iraq and stoking U.S. hatred to epic levels in the region, as well as Trump’s own abandonment of the Kurds, his even more accelerated exit timetable (May 1) and his cozying up to the Saudi’s, whose track record on women’s rights were nearly as appalling as the Taliban’s.  Not to mention countless other indignities Trump inflicted that diminished our standing in the world -- including sucking up to dictators and excoriating NATO – that certainly overwhelm this Biden misfire.


Biden took intense heat for his initial statements on the withdrawal.  His August 16 speech was vilified by CNN's Jake Tapper, who stated that "The President claimed the buck stopped with him but then proceeded to blame everyone else."  Biden had in fact pointed out that the Afghan military had not put up any fight at all and that the Trump Administration had negotiated a poor deal.  Somehow this was seen as being ungracious, even though both statements were, in fact, completely relevant and true.  The point here is not that Biden should escape blame entirely, but rather that the critiques were overblown and only partially deserved.

 

For his part, Biden borrowed a page from Trump in adopting a defiant, fiery and unapologetic posture in defending the exit, claiming that it was “the right decision for America” – and that the laying down of arms by the Afghan army proved that the American presence was pointless.  He defended the August 31 timetable for the exit and his unwillingness to extend it, saying that it was not arbitrary, and instead was predicated on saving American lives.  He also termed the evacuation effort as a “success.”  These statements are also true.

 

What is the true cost to Biden politically?  Time will tell, but in the short term Biden lost a mere three points in his approval rating in August (versus July), despite the daily headlines and miserable optics.  That is hardly a crisis.  Under Barack Obama, approval ratings flattened compared to those of his predecessors, as the country polarized, and the worst he suffered were a few four-point drops in a month.  Trump, who never seemed to be held accountable for his personal war on democracy, integrity and decency, never dropped more than three points in a month, which he did three times, once in May 2017 (the month he fired FBI Director James Comey), June 2020 (when the first COVID re-openings spun out of control) and in his infamous final month, January 2021, which included, of course, the January 6 insurrection.  The Biden drop is in line with these declines, and started from a higher level than Trump's.

 

None of which is to say that the impact to Biden was minimal.  Losing three points in this era is indeed a blow, especially when those points have dropped him “underwater”, that is, below 50%, for the first time.  Some swing state members of Congress up for reelection in 2022 have begun to distance themselves from Biden, at least on Afghanistan, with gusto.  Nevertheless, with a disapproval rating of 45%, he is still net positive (+3) – something Trump never achieved -- and in position to recover if he is successful on his two biggest priorities, COVID and his ambitious economic/legislative agenda, which is focused primarily on his two infrastructure bills.  Biden is also essentially playing a long game on Afghanistan, betting that Americans will remember the decision to exit, one they support on a bipartisan basis, and in time forget the reality (and the optics) of the messy exit.

 

The news on COVID for the month was not terribly good, as new cases more than tripled (from 1.1 million to 3.6 million), as did deaths (from roughly 9,000 to 27,000).  The percentages of fully vaccinated Americans only rose from 49.6% to 52.4% in the month, although the number of fully vaccinated Americans numbered 8 million in August, slightly ahead of the 7 million that became fully vaccinated in July.  Biden needs that figure to continue to grow, and it might, given a new set of incentives, including a  rising death toll, a greater percentage of new cases among children, the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, and the increasing number of corporate and governmental vaccine mandates.

 

The economy continues to perform very well on the Biden watch, with unemployment dropping to 5.4%, second quarter GDP growing at 6.6%, and the Dow topping 35,000.  Biden’s path to reelection will continue to ride the twin rails of peace and prosperity.  To that end, Biden badly needs his infrastructure agenda to be passed in Congress.  That is clearly both the big win he needs to change the narrative of an Administration that has seen its approval rating steadily decline since the Inaugural, as well as the fiscal stimulus he needs to be the economy growing at a rapid pace. 

 

And on this front, Biden needs only to count on Democrats from here on in.  The Senate passed the $1 trillion “hard” infrastructure bill with 19 GOP Senators supporting it, and pass the $3.5 trillion budget plan required for a reconciliation vote on the “soft” infrastructure bill, scheduled for a fall vote, along party lines.  Nancy Pelosi then herded the cats to do the same, quelling a mini-revolt by a group of previously meek moderate Democrats, called the “Mod Squad.”

 

This sets up the potential for a fall comeback by Biden.  Keeping the Democrats together on the final “soft” bill will be a difficult challenge for Biden, Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, but it has literally become too big to fail for the Biden Administration.  It has also gotten too far, under the leadership of Chuck Schumer and Pelosi, for any Democrat to lightly oppose it.  This drama will begin unfolding soon, and the midterms, at the very least, will ride, at least in significant measure, on the outcome.

 

 

BIDEN APPROVAL RATING

Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped 3 points in July versus August (it appears to be -4 points due to rounding, but the actual change is -3.4).  His net positive fell to +3.  Trump achieved neither the 48%level nor a net positive any month in his four years in office.



HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES

Biden showed slippage across every issue in the last months, dropping by 3-5 points across each.  He is still substantially outperforming Trump’s ratings at the time he left office on all measures except his handling of the economy, Trump’s strongest issue.     

While the “right track” measure has fallen a few notches, it remains far higher than where Trump left it in January, increasing from 20% to 34% under Biden.



BIDENOMETER

The “Bidenometer” remained virtually unchanged in August, moving from +65 in July to +64.  A significant drop in the unemployment rate was offset by a decline in consumer confidence, while the other measures were virtually unchanged. 

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

With a Bidenometer of +64, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +64 under Biden.


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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


 

6 comments:

  1. The critique of Biden's path on Afghanistan is over the top -- with foes' positions being highlighted by media outlets, major media outlets making their own narrative of "crisis" and "defensive" obvious, and few "leaders" being willing to offer a full-throated defense of Biden's limited available options. [Not that this column piles into that heap, but really....]

    A few comments:
    * among those with military experience, I've yet to read any concrete alternative that would (1) be within the bounds of the Trump/Pompeo negotiated agreement, (2) be tolerable to the Taliban [and their Pakistani sponsors], and (3) achieve a goal of withdrawal and an end to throwing more money into the sunken investment of the past decades. Closest I've seen -- we shouldn't withdraw during "fighting season" on Trump's May or Biden's August timetables, but withdraw in late fall or early winter.

    * Among those with political experience, I've not seen anyone hint at a set of decisions that would have garnered more support among the US voting populace. Staying until we got "everyone" out is popular until someone asks about additional American casualties and where that "everyone" ought to go. Leaving more quickly attracts some support until there are questions about the promises made to those working with us.

    * The only criticism I've seen which seems entirely justified: the Americans repeatedly acting without consultation before the decision or even sharing the decision and giving enough time for others to prepare. NATO allies, Afghan security forces, and some domestic Democratic allies have all said there was a lack of communication by the Administration. Both strategic AND tactical decisions were then limited to adjustments that could be made with less than 48 hours of "planning," and sometimes with absolutely no notice at all (e.g., Bagram Air Base).

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