Can the Biden presidency survive the impact of Afghanistan?

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2021.   Melina Mara/Pool via REUTERS

Survey research often produces ambiguous or contradictory results, but not in the case of Afghanistan.  The American people decided years ago that the war in Afghanistan was not worth the cost, and nothing they have seen during the past few weeks has changed their minds. Support for ending America’s military involvement remains high, despite the public’s belief that the withdrawal will increase the threat of terrorism and diminish our national security.

Nevertheless, the people distinguish between the decision to withdraw and the way this decision has been carried out. About three in four Americans believe that our exit has gone badly, and only 33% think that there is a clear plan for evacuating U.S. civilians.

Americans’ concern extends to the Afghans who supported and worked with our soldiers and diplomats and now fear for their lives at the hands of the Taliban. Eight in 10 Americans support rescuing these Afghans and bringing them to the United States, and six in 10 have concluded that we are not doing enough to help them. These views are shared by majorities across lines of age, education, ideology, party identification, race, and ethnicity.

Not surprisingly, Americans disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, accelerating the decline in his job approval that had begun before Kabul sank into chaos. As recently as July, 60% of Americans approved of his performance in this area. By August 20, this figure had fallen to just 47%.

Because there have been other negative developments since the spring, such as the resurgence of the pandemic after a few weeks of euphoria that we were putting it behind us, it is hard to assess the impact of the president’s handling of the Afghan crisis on declining public evaluations of his presidency. We do know that recent events in Afghanistan have done nothing to arrest Mr. Biden’s decline and have probably intensified it.

Table 1: Percentage of Americans who agree that President Biden is…

April 2021 August 2021
Competent 56% 49%
Focused 56% 48%
Effective 55% 47%
Source: CBS/YouGov survey, August 18-20

This first real crisis since Joe Biden took office has been a blow to his presidency, but it is not necessarily fatal. Even now, Americans remain more focused on the economy and the pandemic than on overseas developments, and local news sources do not give events in Afghanistan the priority they enjoy within the Capital Beltway. History shows that foreign policy failures in far-off lands have little impact on a president’s standing.

If Mr. Biden can convey a sense of command over the next few weeks and successfully complete the evacuation of American citizens and our Afghan partners, he may be able to blunt what has been non-stop, withering criticism across party lines and begin to restore his standing.

This begins, as it always does in a crisis, by leveling with the American people. Nonpartisan observers have been struck by the president’s seeming detachment from the facts of the situation. In his speeches last week, Mr. Biden overstated the strength of the Afghan government forces, understated the difficulties Americans are experiencing reaching the Kabul airport for evacuation, asserted—against the military and intelligence consensus—that Al Qaeda is no longer a factor in Afghanistan, and falsely claimed that our allies have not been critical of his administration’s decisions.

Americans respect leaders who stick to their principles, but not at the cost of denying reality. Firmness is a virtue; stubbornness is not.