Biden is facing his biggest crisis yet. And he will survive it

Show caption ‘Joe Biden must ignore the media storm and the over-the-top politically motivated calls for his resignation by Republican politicians.’ Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock Opinion Biden is facing his biggest crisis yet. And he will survive it Ben Davis The majority of Americans support the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That’s why his approval ratings will bounce back in the long run Fri 27 Aug 2021 10.19 BST Share on Facebook

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, and the country’s nearly immediate fall to the Taliban, has created the first major public relations crisis of his presidency. This crisis further deteriorated on Thursday, with the Islamic State bombing at Kabul airport, which claimed the lives of at least 12 American soldiers.

Elite opinion in both parties has been decidedly against his decision to withdraw and he has received intense and sustained negative media coverage for the first time as president. The airport blast will only make this worse. As a result, Biden’s formerly stable approval rating has dropped precipitously and now sits just barely above water. Biden has hit a crisis that looks like it could sink his presidency, but he is right to dismiss his critics and stay the course, both morally and politically.

Biden campaigned and was elected on leaving Afghanistan. While the spasm of negative coverage has damaged his approval rating temporarily, the underlying policy of withdrawing from Afghanistan is extremely popular. Even polling designed to elicit specific negative responses, such as Morning Consult’s framing of supporting withdrawal “even if it means it creates an opening for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups to establish operations”, results in net positive support for withdrawal. Americans of both political parties do not want to be engaged in military occupation and overseas conflict in perpetuity.

Americans of both political parties do not want to be engaged in military occupation and overseas conflict in perpetuity

Those who are declaring the withdrawal a presidency-defining catastrophe for Biden are ignoring that the shelf-life of scandals isn’t what it used to be. There is much to be gained from staying the course and riding out the storm. Donald Trump was a master of this. He was able to rebound back to his baseline from a number of controversies that briefly sank his approval rating. A number of other politicians, such as the Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, have also demonstrated the limited timeframe of controversy.

Biden must ignore the media storm and the over-the-top politically motivated calls for his resignation by Republican politicians like Nikki Haley and Josh Hawley, who are dropping their isolationist “America first” charade in order to criticize the withdrawal. As Trump himself said earlier this year: “Getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do.” His supporters will likely agree. And so Republican politicians will be forced to adjust to this reality.

The sad truth is, the media’s attention span – especially when it comes to covering western wars – is short. If the past two decades has taught us anything, it’s that the current wall-to-wall Afghanistan coverage is rare and fleeting. Biden can weather this storm, especially if he is successful at tackling the humanitarian part of this crisis, rather than the military one.

A recent poll found that 81% of Americans support offering asylum to Afghans. And nine Republican governors have even offered to resettle Afghan refugees in their states. Given that much of the outcry over Biden’s withdrawal was over the dramatic scenes of Afghans clinging to airplanes at Kabul airport, a successful refugee resettlement effort would help to disarm many of Biden’s fiercest critics. Biden has a rare but brief opportunity to resettle refugees before Republican officials in state governments revert to their usual anti-refugee positions. Biden has a moral imperative to take advantage of this and accept as many people as possible.

The other important point in Biden’s favor is: there was no credible alternative. Some have argued that, while the withdrawal was generally a good idea, the execution was shambolic. And while this may be true when it comes to the evacuation crisis – Biden could certainly have airlifted American civilians and Afghan refugees sooner – it’s clear that a Taliban takeover could not have been avoided. Despite the chaos at the airport, about 100,000 Afghans have been evacuated in a very short period of time. If two decades of war to the tune of $1tn couldn’t stop a Taliban takeover, then the only responsible decision is to avoid yet more war and loss of life.

The rapid withdrawal was dramatic and painful, like ripping a Band-Aid off. A slower withdrawal would have almost certainly been worse. By endlessly drawing out the exit, every new bombing, every new surprise attack, could have slowed down the pace of the exit until it ground entirely to a halt, causing needless protracted suffering. All the while, lives would continue to be lost for an unwinnable war.

That Biden has resolutely stuck by his decision in the face of universal media condemnation is extremely brave, and it will pay off in the long term both for Americans and the Afghans who have lived under two decades of war. When the eyes of the media move on, his approval rating should rebound, and the administration will be able to refocus on political battles that deliver clear material benefits for Americans, like the infrastructure bill and reconciliation package.

The current crisis is a painful one, but it will not define Biden’s presidency. If he delivers on his ambitious domestic agenda, he will still have the opportunity to be remembered as an FDR-style president. He will be celebrated for the victories he won, not the quagmires he inherited.

Ben Davis works in political data in Washington DC