The current White House is, of course, a sharp political and behavioral reaction to the previous one. And Biden is never going to finish his predecessor’s border wall, berate allies or set a mob on the US Capitol.
But the 45th and 46th presidents do share an understanding of several key economic and societal forces driving modern life outside Washington. And both, in different ways, shaped their appeal by convincing ordinary Americans who feel left behind that they were committed to working for them.
Biden, like Trump and President Barack Obama before him, ran for office on a platform of extricating Americans from quagmires, spending the trillions such wars cost here at home and restoring economic fairness.
While the previous two presidents made progress in various ways toward those goals, the current commander-in-chief has put them at the heart of everything he does. Political and outside factors could still frustrate Biden — not least a wafer-thin margin of error in a 50-50 Senate. And the world has a habit of disregarding American presidents and their big foreign policy pronouncements.
Biden’s Afghanistan decision carries risk
When he stood on exactly the spot Wednesday in the White House Treaty Room where President George W. Bush announced the start of the country’s longest conflict, Biden announced it was time to leave. He made a point that contradicted much Beltway foreign policy doctrine but that has long occurred to that minority of citizens who send their children to fight America’s wars.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden said.
On Wednesday, the President announced that all US and allied troops will leave by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in five months time. To show his admiration for the valor of American troops who fought in that part of the world, he paired his announcement with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. He stood somberly in Section 60, the sacred grave sites of post-9/11 war dead — the total of which outnumbers the toll from the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
The visit underscored the gravity of his announcement Wednesday. There are many foreign policy and national security reasons why Biden’s decision to defy the advice of his generals could turn out to be a mistake.
Kabul could fall to the Taliban, ushering a new dark age for Afghan women and girls. Terrorists could again use the country as a haven that threatens the US — though militants have footings in plenty of other failed states.
Obama and Trump flinched at a withdrawal from Afghanistan for many of those same reasons. But Biden, after watching new war plans, troops surges, partial withdrawals and talks with Taliban all fail to pave the way home for US forces while serving as a senator and vice president, has made his decision.
“When will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more than the trillion we have already spent? ‘Not now?’ — that’s how we got here,” Biden said.
He emphasized that the US will not conduct a “hasty rush to the exit,” but rather would draw down troops “responsibly, deliberately and safely” and focus on reorganizing the nation’s counterterrorism capabilities and assets in the region to “prevent reemergence of terrorists — of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon.”
But Biden argued that it is time to “focus on the challenges that are in front of us,” at a time when “terrorist networks and operations have spread far beyond Afghanistan since 9/11.” Part of that work, he said, is shoring up “American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.”
“We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” the President said.
Those arguments about strengthening and repositioning America to lead on the world stage have been at the center of Biden’s agenda throughout his brief presidency, particularly in the Covid relief package and his $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
Trump also talked about the need for a sharper competitive edge, and his supporters would argue that he handsomely honored his campaign promise to alleviate the suffering of many of the Midwestern Americans whose jobs disappeared in decades of post-industrial globalization. The US economy roared under Trump — until the pandemic that he ignored and denied shredded growth and millions of jobs. But even when things were going well, the President’s signature legislative achievement — tax reform — did more to direct wealth toward the wealthy and corporations than the forgotten Americans that he so often addressed in his remarks.
Biden has maintained an approval rating above 50% in part by focusing on the nation’s most urgent issues, like accelerating the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination program and pouring funding into initiatives aimed at helping schools reopen, a critical step in getting the economy back on stronger footing. He has already made good on his campaign promise to deliver stimulus checks to middle and working-class Americans, adding another payment of up to $1,400 to the $600 that was part of a December package passed before he took office. He has expanded the definition of “infrastructure” beyond crumbling roads and bridges to proposals like payments for elderly and poorer Americans who need home health care.
By contrast, “Infrastructure week” was a perennial punchline in Trump’s chaotic White House as the ex-President never managed to stay sufficiently focused to make progress on the one issue on which Democrats might have joined him.
So far, the difference between the last administration and this one has been the ability to execute. Biden has yet to win the bipartisan cooperation he longs for, but he is attempting to show Americans that he is focused on crossing off his campaign promises, one at a time, without distractions — and that may go a long way in building the trust he needs to succeed.