From the moment President Biden entered the White House his team has tried to brand the presidency as one built on competence and empathy.
This is what he believed would be the corrective measure needed after four chaotic years of President Donald Trump, who stuffed his administration with people who had basically no government experience, and who spent a lot of their time fighting each other.
No, Biden would bring in the grown-ups. His treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, had previously run the Federal Reserve. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, was a Republican with independence and stature as a former nominee for the US Supreme Court. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, had been the chief of staff to two vice presidents and was previously the Ebola czar, an experience that could be helpful during this pandemic. His Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, wasn’t a politician but an experienced diplomat who had spent years in Foggy Bottom and around the globe. Then there was the president himself, who had more experience in the White House and in national politics than any other in history.
During the first six months of his presidency, the results spoke for themselves. The nation was defeating COVID. The economy was improving. America was repairing relationships with allies around the globe. Even the Senate was starting to work again despite the status quo of partisan politics. All of this without controversial tweets or drama.
Over the weekend, as the Taliban retook control over Afghanistan, critics of Biden have found a major counterpoint to all the competence talk.
As the Taliban swept into Kabul with stunning speed and Americans and allies on the ground retreated for safety, the Biden administration looked anything but competent. And the pictures released from the White House of a president sitting alone in a room at Camp David on a video conference were as bad as seeing helicopters in Kabul undergoing rescue missions of our own diplomats.
This morning, the President and Vice President met with their national security team and senior officials to hear updates on the draw down of our civilian personnel in Afghanistan, evacuations of SIV applicants and other Afghan allies, and the ongoing security situation in Kabul. pic.twitter.com/U7IpK3Hyj8— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 15, 2021
To argue, as the Biden administration has over the weekend, that the images are just a messy consequence of the correct decision to leave Afghanistan misses the point. Leaving was a decision initiated by Trump, a Republican, affirmed by Biden, a Democrat, and was widely popular with the American people who saw little results after two decades of involvement and $2 trillion spent on a government that was corrupt and didn’t seem to care that much about holding power.
The point here is how Biden executed this exit strategy. The administration said it would take at least 18 months for the Taliban take control of the country. They were wrong. Biden reportedly has said for months that he didn’t want images of a helicopter rescuing American diplomats — a scene that would stir memories of US personnel being evacuated from Saigon in a humiliating end to the Vietnam war — yet that’s exactly what happened. The administration promised that the US would obviously protect interpreters and others who helped the war effort since they will be Taliban targets. They are in danger now.
And in a comment that will rank up there with former president George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” banner, Biden assured Americans just five weeks ago that “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
There is no spin that can suggest that Biden was right about any of this, or that the events of the past week aren’t, as Congressman Seth Moulton put it, “anything short of a disaster.”
“Worse, it was avoidable,” Moulton, who endorsed Biden in the Democratic primary, added.
Where this all goes from here politically is unclear. Biden’s poll numbers were already slightly dropping during the summer. This, along with a growing threat of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, certainly is not going to help his approval ratings.
But whether it shows up in the midterms or Biden’s own reelection, the horrific images over the weekend from Afghanistan and the stories we will learn about how this tragedy will fall on the backs of Afghan women will be legitimate fodder for Republicans and even some Democrats.
News events cut the most when they either reaffirm the given narrative about a politician (like Trump and Charlottesville) or when they run sharply counter to the major narrative, like Biden and competency.
After the fall of Afghanistan, the Biden presidency will never be the same.