Will the Afghanistan withdrawal hurt Joe Biden in the US midterms?

President’s approval ratings have plummeted since the deadly evacuation

Joe Biden
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted since the Taliban swept into Kabul two weeks ago, with Democrats fearing the chaotic withdrawal could cost them control of Congress in next November’s midterm elections.

The US president has “put the bravest face possible on the bloody and chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan”, the Financial Times said, “defending his move to end a 20-year conflict that dogged three of his predecessors as an act of political courage”.

“I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America,” Biden yesterday said at the end of his White House speech on the final day of the pullout.

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The withdrawal from Afghanistan “has been a pillar of Biden’s foreign policy vision for years, and until recently it did not seem to carry much political peril”, continued the FT, noting that it was widely backed by “war-weary” US voters.

‘Indelible stain?’

As the world’s eyes turned to the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport and a deadly terrorist attack carried out by Isis-K, his approval rating fell to its lowest point of his presidency so far this week, at less than 50%, according to a Morning Consult poll.

But “there are two ways this could go”, according to Time. “The withdrawal could become an indelible stain on Biden’s legacy, and remain the most pressing issue for voters in the midterm elections next year,” the magazine said.

“Or it could fade from voters’ minds in the coming months and years as they focus more on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic issues.”

While most pollsters say it is too early to tell how much of a mark the debacle might leave on the Biden administration, it is clear he has reached “the most difficult moment of his presidency so far”.

GOP attack

Whether it sticks in the minds of voters or not, the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal are a gift to Republicans, who now “smell blood having until now struggled to find an effective line of attack against Biden as candidate or president”, reported The Guardian.

Although foreign policy “rarely decides” US elections, the criticisms levelled at the president throughout the withdrawal have “fuelled a pre-existing narrative that the 78-year-old does not have ‘the right stuff’”, the paper added.

Some Republicans have called for Biden’s resignation, while Trump loyalists have gone so far as to call for impeachment. But “Biden isn’t going anywhere”, said The Hill, noting that there is “zero chance” that House Democrats would move to impeach the president.

However, “in calling for impeachment and resignation, Republicans are trying to demonstrate to their base how they would provide a check on the Biden presidency if voters hand them the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections”, suggested the news site.

As many senior Republicans see it, the “botched” withdrawal could be the event that “will propel the GOP back into power on Capitol Hill”. Biden commands a narrow majority in Congress, and Republicans only need to flip a net of five seats to win back the House and just one to take the Senate.

Difficult though it may have been, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is “probably not” going to “derail President Biden’s entire agenda”, said political commentator Matt Bai in The Washington Post.

It is clear that “Democratic Washington is in the grip of panic” as the fallout continues, he added, but “all presidents get pounded by unforeseen crises” and “midterm elections are pretty much never driven by foreign policy”.

“Will voters a year from now focus on the economy? Yes. The state of the pandemic? Sure. Government spending? Entirely possible,” he said. “Bungling the end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan – a withdrawal that most people supported? Very, very unlikely.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.