President Biden took heat earlier this week for opening much-delayed remarks on the precarious withdrawal from Afghanistan with a lengthy defense of his domestic policy record, touting rapid economic growth and the advance of a $3.5 trillion reconciliation measure funding a number of liberal policy priorities.
"Before I update you on the meeting that I had with leaders of the G7 earlier today, I want to say a word about the progress we're making on the Build Back Better agenda here at home," he said. Former Trump administration official Richard Grenell later tweeted that Biden was "talking about infrastructure and climate change while Americans are trapped."
The conventional wisdom is that voters care little about foreign policy unless American troops are dying, but they will reward politicians for economic gains at home. Biden is testing that theory. He is removing troops from harm's way in Afghanistan, however messily, and trying to get Congress to pass trillions of dollars in new spending to stimulate the economy ahead of next year's midterm elections.
Biden is in effect betting that once the disturbing images from Kabul are off the air, most of the electorate will instead concentrate on the bridges being built in their own congressional districts. Certainly, Biden's own voters want most of this spending much more than they want a longer war in Afghanistan.
The initial polling results haven't been kind to this thesis, however. Since the Taliban takeover, Biden's job approval ratings have been underwater for the first time in the RealClearPolitics polling average. A number of recent polls have him stuck in the 40s. Politico/Morning Consult and NBC News/Wall Street Journal have him at exactly 50 percent, still only two points above his disapproval numbers.
Some possible explanations? Americans don't like losing, or presidential weakness, especially after 20 years at war. Afghanistan has a direct 9/11 connection in the voters' minds. There is still risk of loss of life, or at least a humiliating hostage crisis on par with Tehran in 1979. The images are still raw.
But it is also still very early. The midterm elections, in which Democrats must defend the slimmest majorities, are over a year away. The next presidential election is two years after that. There is plenty of time for this to recede into the background. But Biden must deliver an evacuation far more successful than the futile nation-building exercise he inherited.