WASHINGTON — The second week of August began as a time for vacation for President Joe Biden and some of his team. Then Afghanistan imploded. The reports out of Kabul were harrowing: Images of desperate Afghan nationals clinging to U.S. military airplanes leaving the country and, days later, a suicide bombing at a gate to the airport that killed 13 U.S. troops.
Addressing the nation on Aug. 16, Biden defended his decision to leave Afghanistan but acknowledged that the Taliban takeover of the country “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Administration officials and allies publicly argued there was no good way to exit a war that had been lost years ago, and privately said that within a few weeks, most Americans — who largely supported the decision to bring U.S. troops home from the 20-year conflict — would forget about the messy process.
But across the river in Arlington, aides working for Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia were picking up on troubling trends. Their race was tightening, amid what they would later describe in a memo as “a negative national climate” — collateral damage from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, among other issues. The memo found that voters also viewed the coronavirus pandemic and the economy as two of their three most important issues.
In postelection briefings with Democrats after McAuliffe lost, campaign aides argued that the crises the Biden administration faced in August undercut the president and his party’s message of competence and a return to normalcy.
Biden presented himself as an antidote to his predecessor, offering the promise of what his own campaign ads called “strong, steady, stable leadership” after four years of bedlam under President Donald Trump. But the tumult surrounding the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan offered an early glimpse of the cascade of crises that have badly eroded Biden’s image of restoring calm.
Biden on Thursday will mark the first full year of his presidency facing intraparty Democratic disarray, stalled legislation, supply chain issues, worrying inflation, rising tensions with Russia and another highly transmissible coronavirus variant called omicron — all of which have led to an approval ratings average stuck in the low 40s.
Biden’s staffers and other defenders say he took office facing unprecedented calamity — from a historic pandemic to a struggling economy — and note that despite a thin congressional majority, he managed to pass two major pieces of legislation in his first year: an economic stimulus plan designed to help rescue the country from the pandemic and a massive infrastructure package.
But the administration has also repeatedly underestimated the magnitude of the nation’s challenges, including failing to anticipate the delta and omicron coronavirus variants, and has struggled to unite the liberal base and the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party. The president and his team have also stumbled in offering a clear and reassuring message, unable to convince many Americans that they understand their travails or that better days are ahead.
“People are understandably anxious about the persistence of the pandemic and continuing disruptions to our daily lives,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. “And they will always hold the president in office responsible for when things don’t feel right.”
And Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said: “If I were giving them a grade — and I was a political-science professor for a long time — I’d have to give them an incomplete.”
The decline in Biden’s poll numbers, which already were dropping, accelerated dramatically over the summer. By early September, more Americans disapproved than approved of the way Biden was handling his job for the first time in his presidency, according to a Washington Post average of polls since May 2021.
Post-ABC polls showed a 10-point drop in approval of Biden’s handling of the pandemic from late June to early September. The September Post-ABC poll also found that 60% disapproved of his handling of the situation in Afghanistan, and by November, Biden’s overall job ratings had dipped further amid rising disapproval of his handling of the economy and the coronavirus.
Biden’s poor August poll numbers, said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, stemmed from “a combination of the execution of the exodus from Afghanistan with the resurgence of the virus that people six weeks earlier were being told was largely behind us, and it created a sense of disorder, when what they were really hoping for was orderliness.”
The Biden administration, he added, has a story of real accomplishment to tell, but many Americans “are still feeling a sense of unease and unsettlement and disruption.”
The assessment from Republicans is even more stark. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said that “for a long time, we saw that Biden no matter what was given the benefit of the doubt from the American people, who would say, ‘He’s a good guy. He’s trying his best.’ ”
But Afghanistan, she said, proved to be “his first major hit.”
“That was the moment where Biden himself looked callous, uncaring, incompetent, and failed in a key moment of leadership,” McDaniel said. “The rest has been attrition by COVID and inflation and other things. Right now most Americans are frustrated you can’t get a test, you can’t get anything you think the Biden administration should have been reasonably prepared for.”
“Old.” “Incoherent.” “Lazy.” “Sleepy Joe.”
These were among the first descriptions that came to mind for 10 suburban women swing voters who gathered late last year for a virtual focus group conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake on behalf of several liberal organizations. The results were reviewed by The Post on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of the participants and the groups.
Asked to elaborate, the women in the focus group said it seemed like “he’s trying,” but that Biden shuffles and frequently seems to lose his train of thought. Biden is “wishy-washy” in standing up to his own party, one woman said, explaining that she thought the president seemed more like an actor in a “supporting role.”
“He doesn’t convey being strong to me,” she said. “He seems weak.”
Others offered suggestions: “If he needs a nap beforehand, take that, because we need him to be there for us.”
In an attempt to overcome such criticism, the administration has begun to change its messaging strategy, allowing Biden to more frequently speak directly to Americans who are struggling, a top official said. Aides believe Biden’s capacity for empathy comes through in such appearances.
As one example, this official said, the White House held Biden’s first public event of the year with farmers and ranchers to address the rising costs of meat and poultry.
White House aides are also talking up Biden’s upcoming State of the Union address in March, telling officials the speech represents the best chance to put things on the agenda and build momentum heading into the midterm elections.
“What people see in President Biden is somebody who thinks about what they’re worried about every single day when he wakes up and walks into the Oval Office, and is doing everything in his power to make their lives better,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said. “So he’s going to continue to do the work. We’re going continue to make progress.”
Biden’s tone has changed as well. In two high-profile speeches this month — one to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and the other to push for voting rights legislation — the president took a more forceful approach, directly challenging Trump and Republicans.
The more aggressive posture heartened Democrats who think Biden spent his first year too bogged down in the minutiae of legislating and insufficiently focused on leadership. Some allies griped that Biden — a senator of nearly four decades — was behaving more like the Senate Judiciary Committee chair he once was than the president. Several times, Biden traveled to Capitol Hill to push one of his legislative goals, only to get thwarted by members of his own party.
One area that hasn’t changed much is personnel: The White House has resisted calls from some on both sides to fire central players in its pandemic and Afghanistan decisions, and aides say no major shake-ups are planned for coming months.
“We have a lot of work left to do, but we’ve had a very productive year,” said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed. “The White House has done a very good job of helping the president carry out the agenda he ran on with the narrowest of margins in Congress and in the midst of enormous challenges at home and abroad. So I think that the strategy for the year ahead is the same formula we followed for the past year, which is keep working, keep getting things done, keep moving the ball downfield.”
Lake, who worked on the Biden campaign and is now working with the Democratic National Committee, described Biden as “moving from the legislative phase to more leadership phase” of his presidency.
“The legislative phase was dominated by talking to people, trying to negotiate, trying to bring people together,” she said. Referring to a line in Biden’s two major speeches this year — where the president warned that the Jan. 6 rioters had held a dagger to the throat of American democracy — Lake added, “That’s not a legislative posture, but the public responds to it.”
One Democratic strategist said the Biden team can turn his presidency around — but probably not in time to stave off defeat in the November midterms.
“They’re in a tough spot,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. “Can they recover? For the 2024 reelection — yes. For 2022 — probably not.”
Administration officials have long contended that if they can just get the coronavirus under control, it will drastically improve the lives of Americans, as well as their own political prospects. But that task, so far, has proved Sisyphean.
In a polarized country, some are still refusing to get vaccinated. Biden and his team are scrambling to fix a testing kit shortage, rolling out a website this week allowing households to order free at-home tests. And last week, the Supreme Court blocked the administration’s vaccination-or-testing requirement for some of the nation’s largest employers.
White House officials and other Democrats also argue that Biden inherited an epic mess from his predecessor and deserves credit for a range of victories, from helping to vaccinate nearly 75% of Americans against the coronavirus with at lease one dose and reopening the majority of schools to passing both a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“It’s important to take stock of where we’ve come,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, a deputy White House chief of staff. “This isn’t a time to, you know, spike the football; there’s a lot of work ahead. But there is also just a really strong story to be told about what’s happened in this administration over the last year and the president’s focus on COVID and on the economy and passing legislation to help the American people directly in their lives.”
Both allies and critics say the administration is at the mercy of a rapidly shifting, once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but one which they have failed to defeat as Biden promised.
“Biden needed to get us through COVID, and when he was getting us through COVID, his numbers went up and when we were getting defeated by COVID, his numbers went down, and that’s where we are now,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. “He needs to be the general who got us through the battle with COVID and rally the American people, and I think there’s still time to do it, but omicron has made that more challenging.”
Steven Law, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who heads the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting Senate Republicans, said he believes that “almost nobody voted for Biden — they voted against the other guy.”
“The dominant Biden argument was, ‘I’m going to fix this COVID issue and the previous president wasn’t able to do it,’ and in many ways, this Biden White House has become everything candidate Biden said was wrong against his predecessor,” Law said.
Some Democrats also say the Biden team was too optimistic, not just hoping for best but also failing to plan for the worst.
“I don’t think they set expectations adequately for what they were dealing with,” said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and former political director in the Clinton White House. “There’s an old saying in Washington that it’s not about winning or losing — it’s whether or not you beat the spread.”
Speaking at the White House on Friday to tout the recently passed infrastructure bill, even Biden briefly seemed to acknowledge the unfulfilled promise of his first year, before turning his attention back to his achievements.
“There’s a lot of talk about disappointments and things we haven’t gotten done,” Biden said. “We’re going to get a lot of them done, I might add.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.