Biden fights to regain control of Afghanistan narrative

AFP , Tuesday 24 Aug 2021

"I think when this is over, the American people will have a clear understanding of what I did," US president told reporters this weekend

File photo: US President Joe Biden, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Washington. AP

Asked about plummeting poll numbers, Joe Biden flashed his megawatt smile and laughed. The Afghanistan exit may look like a disaster but the US president exudes confidence that he will be proved right in the end.

"I think when this is over, the American people will have a clear understanding of what I did," he told reporters this weekend. "That's the job. My job is to make judgments. My job is to make judgments no one else can or will make."

When the Taliban completed their surge across Afghanistan by taking over Kabul in the middle of August, the Biden administration had the appearance of a deer in the headlights.

In Kabul, there was chaos as panicked Afghans mobbed the airport, leading to horrific scenes of people trying to hold on to airplanes and falling to their deaths.

Back home, Biden was initially invisible, prompting a torrent of criticism from Republicans and some of his own allies.

Now, though, the White House is trying to wrest back control of the narrative, insisting that Americans are witnessing not a debacle but a bravely executed withdrawal from a war that had to end regardless.

So far, the spin is not helping Biden's political standing, already hammered by the coronavirus Delta variant and a civil war over masks and vaccines.

An NBC poll published Sunday gave Biden a 49 percent approval rating, down from 53 percent four months earlier. Disapproval for the Democrat had shot up from 39 to 48 percent.

On his handling of Afghanistan, disapproval was a stunning 60 percent.

Biden, though, is the model Washington "happy warrior" -- a politician whose default setting is on optimistic.

Confronted with the dark poll numbers by reporters, he just smiled and laughed.

"I haven't seen that poll," he said.

Airlift raises hope

If there is anyone working hardest to rewrite the script for the embarrassed US government it's the military, which so far has mounted a remarkably efficient airlift from Kabul.

Latest figures showed US aircraft had evacuated more than 37,000 people just since August 14 and 42,000 since July.

Biden, uncharacteristically terse in the first days of the evacuation, is feeding off those numbers to sound increasingly hopeful and proud about the "incredible operation."

But mixed with the patriotism and a return to his trademark empathy when talking about the refugees is a newer element: tough love.

Biden's argument is that, yes, there may be a mess but a mess is inevitable when you exit a civil war -- and exiting is the only goal that really matters.

"There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, of heartbreaking images you see on television. It's just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see," he said.

But while Biden says he is confident in the longterm outcome of the drama, time may not be on his side.

In the most immediate sense he is racing to complete the mass evacuations by an August 31 deadline agreed with the Taliban, who are effectively standing back to allow their enemy to get out.

And the clock is running down on Biden's ability to steer the political ship in a town where his opponents are circling and his allies are nervous.

A pair of giant infrastructure spending packages that were meant to be the legislative crown jewels of the first term are now on hold while Democratic congressional leaders continue to try to ensure enough votes in the closely divided House of Representatives.

Just a little further on the horizon looms the potentially game changing test of the midterm elections when the Democrats may well lose even the narrow majorities they now hold in Congress.

Still, Press Secretary Jen Psaki was as upbeat as her boss on Monday, telling reporters that "you're not elected president expecting to do easy things."

"The test of leadership is not about how you operate on your best day, it's about how you operate when the chips are down, when things are difficult."

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